Editor’s note: In this three-part series, interns Lisa and Carey explored new public art across Seattle: from the latest work by Ginny Ruffner to "Mad Homes"-turned-temporary easels on Capitol Hill. This installment, first published on July 15, chronicled the progress of the John T. Williams memorial totem poles; to honor the one-year anniversary of Williams’ death today, I’d like to run it again.—LD
On a cloudy Tuesday afternoon, visitors to Pier 57 look on as a man brushes the cleansing smoke of burning sage toward two 30-foot logs. For the past four months, David "Popeye" Patterson and his friends have been working 12-hour days, helping to transform a single 135-foot cedar tree into these totem poles in honor of John T. Williams, a talented and troubled Ditidaht woodcarver who was shot to death almost a year ago by a Seattle police officer.
When the project began, throngs of enthusiastic volunteers showed up to help. But 121 days later, those numbers have dwindled to just four core carvers: John’s brother Rick Williams, nephew Eagleson, cousin Dennis Underwood, and their friend Michelle Kinnucan, all working furiously toward an August 30 deadline—the anniversary of John’s death.
On this cedar, Rick’s team has etched a series of wide-eyed figurines that tell the stories of generations of Williams family carvers. This includes an eagle, a frog, a baby and mother raven, an orca, and a master carver holding John’s signature kingfisher and salmon design. Finally, notched into the log and on every piece of merchandise in the tent is a special insignia: the letters J and T combined into a single symbol.
With the project to lean on, Rick confronts more than his share of disappointments; he has family members in Canada who still struggle with poverty and addiction. But like his late brother, he faces grief and exhaustion with a healthy sense of humor: If he were here, “[J.T.] would just look at it and say, ‘Wow, Rick, you sure it’s not big enough?’” Rick says with a laugh, wiping away the tears as he speaks. “I’d rather remember him how he was. Brother there for everybody.”
One of the poles is already fully painted and the other is slated to be finished by next week. Upon completion, the poles will be shipped off to new homes at the Seattle Center and Seward Park. Follow the project on Facebook.