Friday, June 21, 2013

Andrew Morrison, Artist

 Andrew Morrison. Artist. Muralist.

Photo: Madeline Crowley
On 23rd & Union (by what was then the Philly Sub Shop) was a mural of Malcolm X by the best Seattle graffiti crew ever known in the history of the area, DVS; their street name is Snake & Hughes. It was there for 10 years and then someone painted over it, showing negligence toward local history and disrespect for the youth and for the Central Area. 

About Andrew:


Andrew cut his teeth creatively in the Central Area with graffiti, breakdancing and art. Now a successful full-time artist and muralist, his identity in part took root here.

You mentioned that your family came here in the 1940s from rural Alaska to look for work.

Yes. They first found work at the Harborview Hospital. Now, I have too many family members to count live that live in the Central Area. My family had a barbershop here for 20 years. I was born in Providence Hospital and I’ve done a lot in the neighborhood: graffiti, rap, breakdance and gang-mediation.


I noticed in your artwork you have a painting called “The 54th. Can you speak to the theme of marginalized peoples in your artwork?

Andrew Morrison. All Rights Reserved.
My artwork is about 90% Native American images and imagery but my repertoire is vast and wide. One aspect of my heritage is that many of my paintings are culturally Native American. I do, though, have a big love and awareness of non-native people: African-American, Laotians, Chinese, Caucasian, European, Chicano, Hispanic, anybody… I’m a people person. When I relate to and feel strongly about portraying other cultures in my work, then I do.

Growing up I had close African American friends and do to this day. So I could relate to their pain, to their struggles. If I heard them cry, I could understand, to a point, that pain. In Seattle, there’s a certain amount of prejudice and levels of discomfort and friends would confide in me their heartfelt pain. I understood that their ancestors came to the U.S. in ships, then were sent to plantations. Later, I learned of the struggles of men like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King. My opinion is those struggles helped a man like Barack Obama end up in the Oval Office. Still, I’d like to imagine that these 500 years of striving for equality would help people in our country to grow cultural some competence.

Andrew Morrison. All Rights Reserved


You have another piece the “Manifest Destiny” piece. As an artist how do you make sense of an idea with such enormous ramifications? 

Andrew Morrison. All Rights Reserved.
 
There are a lot of reasons why I created that painting. It strikes a chord for a lot of people. It has spoken to Native American people and to people from all walks of life.

One reason had to do with growing up in contemporary America as a Native American. The majority of my life wasn’t spent on a Reservation or in Alaska, it was right here in the city. Yet, at times I felt disenfranchised and marginalized in Seattle. It was as if people didn’t understand me. I was viewed as different when I was growing up. I had a lot of run-ins with law enforcement when I was young. It seemed like there were a lot of misunderstandings.

I could witness with my own eyes the inequality and the effect a certain amount of oppression had on my family: on my brothers; on my sister; my father, my mother; living and working here in the city. I could see was there was a struggle we had to survive. My family is very giving and very loving.

Since I was a small child it was crystal clear to me that the mainstream society had oppression over the Native community here. The very community I live in, all my friends witnessed it too. For one example, I used to have really long braided hair and people made fun of me for that. One time I was walking on the street and someone threw something at me and hit me. Another time when I was walking someone grabbed my braid and pulled it. So I had confrontations with a lot of people in Seattle over how I looked. People were judging me, taking one look at me and whether because of the tone of my skin or the long hair or whatever. That’s my first hand experience.

I could see people not understanding that I’m a Native American person or that culturally/historically the Native-Americans have had ties to this land for, forever…  for centuries before Europeans, before African-Americans, before the Chinese, before the modern country that we live in. 

I felt that I was in the right just being myself and wearing my hair long and walking the earth. Yet, it seemed that simple way of being, somehow rubbed people the wrong way. I could talk about many aspects of why I painted “Manifest Destiny,” that’s only one.



Sometimes I wonder how I would feel if I was from the First Nations people here?

It’s a real question. I don’t have a problem answering it. For a lot of Native-American  people, it’s always on their mind. It hasn’t changed over the last 100 years. In 2013, I still face the same question everyday.

I’ve come to a point where it’s a constant forgiving of people, a constant understanding of people, a constant compassion for people. I would almost say on a daily basis I run into conflict with people judging me because of what I look like.

I’m a very simple person; I speak very simply. Yet, there are Native American people who don’t react the way I do, there’s many who are more combative. There are many who are more willing to confront and re-educate people about who the land belonged to originally. My oldest brother is probably the most old fashioned man, the most militant and confrontational person I’ve ever met. We’re alike but very different because I’m somewhat quiet and passive. He’s not. He’s the exact opposite - very loud, very confrontational, very militant, very single-minded.

Was he old enough to be part of the American Indian Movement?   

No, he’s about 44 years old. That was happening when he was growing up. He used to live this street life, as they say, he grew up in the streets of Seattle. That made him extremely combative, extremely survival oriented, extremely wild. It seems like that’s just engrained in him now.

If someone confronts him at the 7-11, he’ll just snap right then and there. For me, I give people a grace period, even if someone asks if I speak English or if I’m from the Philippines. But my brother, in a blink of an eye he’ll go to war with anybody: the Mayor, the City, the parking attendant, the waiter… He’s the most aggressive man I’ve ever met in my life, and I’ve lived in New York City, Boston, Seattle, South Dakota, Arizona. Hands-down, he’s on the brink of wild, as wild as any I’ve ever met. He’s like a gorilla wanting to break out of a cage. He’s the real deal, comic book villain. That’s what I grew up with, around that.

I’m the opposite as far as personality and my ability to stay calm, to not react so quickly with people. Still, it’s a daily thing I run into here in the city, people are quick to judge me, who knows why.

I’m returning to the original question of what it’s like to address that lack of understanding on a daily basis. There are two sides to the coin, people like me who are willing to read a book or write a poem, or paint a picture or other individuals who are ready to flip over a car or confront the waiter. One is forgiving and one is not forgiving.

I believe that is one small example, just me and my brother.  There are hundreds of thousands of Native-American families out there. There are many who are calm, and many who aren’t, some who believe in college, and some who don’t. It’s a very heavy question. I could probably go on for a while.

The story of the Central Area won’t be complete without the original people. There are many Native-American people living and working in Seattle, the First Peoples, and they’ve somehow become invisible.

It’s hard to see, yeah. If something’s out of sight, it’s out of mind.

Say, someone visits from Chicago having never been to Seattle. They go to a Starbucks, then have a meeting at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation at Seattle Center.  Next spend day in a meeting talking to white-collar people who don’t really stress Native-American history. Then have a meeting at Boeing in Everett or with executives at Amazon or Expedia.com or any of these corporate entities. These corporations have raised millions of dollars to fund all this industrial growth. They’ve made this economically viable landscape through all these new buildings everywhere.

If that’s what you see in Seattle, then the Duwamish, the Suquamish people, they really don’t mesh [with that experience] that well. If you want to incorporate then those corporate entities are going to be your portrait of the city.  You have to dig deeper to see there are a lot of Native-American people working in the city.

Your work is interesting in a lot of ways, one way is that it never takes a polemical position but it is deeply political.

I strive to leave a space for viewers to make their own decisions about how to view the work. They can pull from it what they see, what speaks to them. When I address some political subjects like: treaty rights, the Indian Movement, John T. Williams, sovereign nations issues, or per capita payments within reservations, even then, there’s always loose ends for the viewer.  That’s a conscious choice because I don’t ever want my artwork to exclude people. It’s always meant for the sake of Man, so it has as an inclusive intent. It’s not meant to offend; it’s meant to really stimulate thought and warm people up to it.

There’s a human spirit that roams the earth. My title of “Native-American” is just one part of who I am. I’m a Soul who connects with other Souls. That conscious choice has an element of inclusiveness so I don’t box myself into a corner.

I read in one piece on your site that you’ve consciously created vision-quest experiences for yourself before you begin a piece. How would you articulate what it’s like to create from that place?

The way I do my artwork is maybe unique. Let’s say someone wanted a painting for his ranch in Nevada. I go to the ranch, take photos and make sketches. Then, if they gave me a deadline of today at 5pm, that’s where I have to draw the line and refuse that tight deadline. This is a natural process. I’ll take into consideration they need it in a timely fashion but I need a little grace. If I planned to start this painting today I would go to great effort to put my spirit at peace. I don’t let myself worry about bills, my friendships or whatever grievance I might have. I might write a poem or read a poem, maybe go to my favorite coffee shop, drink my favorite coffee, listen to my favorite music. I go through these processes to feel good, if that takes me an hour or if that takes five hours, then, that’s what it takes. I don’t deviate from that process; it’s a real process. It’s a natural process to get me feeling peace.

There’s are people who don’t understand that because they’re working a 9-5 job where you punch the clock and have to pick up the kids at 4:30, this kind of pressured, systematic process that is a lot of people’s lives.

What I do is the total opposite of that; I say there’s enough time for me to do it all. I’m not in a rush today. I come to a place of peace so that when I paint, I’m ready; my spirit is calm. I’m not confined by the worries of today. I start creating my paintings at that point.

I would say eight of ten people I meet on a daily basis don’t truly understand that process. I don’t really explain it; I’m not really a talker. People don’t really understand it so I have to write it down.

You have some murals on the Indian Heritage School… and the School District… well; I’ll let you explain it.

Well, there’s a lot to say about his particular topic and literally a person could talk about this for hours. I’ll try to wrap it in a nutshell.

The Seattle Public Schools (SPS) passed a $695 million dollar budget in February 2013. In this budget is an item for the demolition of the Wilson-Pacific School in north Seattle.  This historically has been the Indian Heritage High School. The SPS underhandedly dismantled that program over the last 10 years so now it doesn’t exist. SPS argues that now the program is dormant, it doesn’t exist, so we can demolish this school.  At the forefront of that scenario are my murals. I painted ten murals of Native-American images on the exterior of the school for the Indian Heritage High School. 



SPS thought they could come in and underhand everybody but they underestimated me as a person. When I have to be I can be very vocal and speak my mind. When I realized that the school district was dismantling this program and destroying my murals, I took a strong stand against it. It was covered in a front-page article in Seattle Times on February 25th 2013. SPS realized I’m a native son of Seattle, a successful artist from Seattle and to bulldoze over me would blow up in their face. So, they in my opinion, tried to coerce me to sign away my copyrights away to my artwork. I refused because I felt they were in the wrong. That’s situation exploded on the front page of the Seattle Times. The Native-American Community and I have been religiously combating the SPS for the last few months.

Do you think it reflects an attitude of the Establishment towards Native People?

It represents their exact attitude and their true colors towards native people

Can you explain that?

Over ten years they dismantled the Indian Heritage program and relocated those children from this high school to the Northgate Mall. They put the remaining children in a classroom above Macys. It’s like the, ‘kids don’t matter, we’re just going to shift you to the Mall and hope you survive.’ Then, they wonder ‘Who is this Andrew guy? He went to college in Boston. Who cares about his murals? Let’s bulldoze the school, let’s wipe our hands clean, lets push through another agenda.’

It’s a $695 million dollar budget. Who’s paying for it? Washington taxpayers. This type of neglect…

What type of neglect?

Of the Native people and their needs. They’re only catering to what they (the School District) need at this time. They need that land, but they gave that land to the Native people in the 1980s. Now they’re taking it back, they shipped these kids to the Northgate Mall, now they’re going to bulldoze this building and make a mega-school. However, the Native people want to say something about this. I won’t let them reproduce my work.

Their actions, that’s a very definition of negligence of cultural competence. That’s not how you get to know me. That’s not how you get to know the 12-year-old child in that school. That’s not how you build trust, that’s not how you build friendship; it’s not how you build anything.

It sounds, in a microcosm, like it’s the same pattern of Manifest Destiny.

Yeah. It’s exactly the history repeating itself. It’s crystal clear.

Have they budged?

They wouldn’t budge for about two to three months. They might have thought I was stupid, that I wasn’t college educated, that I didn’t know how to read, or thought I was some wild sporadic artist, or that I didn’t know how to talk to people. Who knows why? They basically threw the best they had at me. I’m a very strong-willed person. I wasn’t impressed by any of these deceitful tactics or these people who were coming by to coerce me to sign away the copyright to my artwork. Once they realized I had common sense, I’m a nice person, I know the difference between right and wrong. Once they realized that they backpedaled and started trying to save face. Trying to warm up to me a little bit. At that point, they’ve started to budge, started to try, to be nice and be kind. Just that simple little action, we’ll see where it goes.

Do you think there’s a possibility they’ll save the walls (with the murals)?

There’s a strong possibility, yeah.


When I saw them years ago, I felt they weren’t just paintings, I spent time with them.

Yeah, it’s an experience. It’s a feeling. It’s an awareness that speaks to your spirit and your soul. I would explain that to the officials from SPS at a number of meetings. Once I would get into the spirituality of the artwork it seems I would just lose them, it was like I was speaking a different language.

They’d give me all this paperwork showing statistics, drafts and projections for the next 20 years. I’d patiently hear them out but once it was my turn, I’d talk about the spirituality of my artwork. How it nourishes a person’s soul, and then it seemed that every one of them thought I was speaking an alien language. That went on for months. I just didn’t like the way they were approaching me.

At this point, they’ve realized that tactics aren’t going to work so they’re starting to see me as a human, as a fellow spirit. To see that we have commonalities, that I’m not their enemy. I don’t know, actually, I really have no idea how they view me.

I’m glad there’s a little softening there.

It’s after months of this rock-and-a-hard place, this constant misunderstanding, constant tension. Six months of that literally, but now there’s starting to be a little understanding.

The Most Recent Developments on the Murals

And the Final Resolution of the Murals

[Andrew came to this project from the Seattle Times Story]    

©  Madeline Crowley People of the Central Area 2013   All material is covered by copyright. Express written permission must be given for any copyrighted material on this page. Email to request permission to copy or paste materials. 


This project was supported in part by
4Culture's Heritage Projects program


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About Me

Seattle, WA, United States
I am not a professional photographer nor a trained journalist. At community meetings, it became clear that many of us don’t know each other. We haven’t heard each other’s stories and don't know each other’s circumstances. This is my attempt to give a few people the chance to tell their story, to talk about our community, to say their piece in peace. As such, comments have been disabled. The views and opinions expressed here are those of each narrator and do not necessarily reflect the position of views of the CentralAreaComm.blogspot blog site itself. The CentralAreaComm.blogspot.com is not responsible for the accuracy of any information supplied by narrators of this project. All interviews have been edited and in places condensed.

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