Alexander Swiftwater McCarty is a talented man whose life is interwoven with his culture, family, art, and the lives of the students he inspires. He is a member of the Makah Nation, a skilled artist, and an art teacher at Chief Leschi Schools in Puyallup.
Now through June 18, some of McCarty’s work is on display at Tacoma’s B2 Fine Art Gallery in its “Coyote Forward” exhibit. “Coyote Forward” is a contemporary Native American art exhibition and also includes the work of other Native American artists, including Joe Feddersen, Lillian Pitt, and Gail Tremblay.
“My mother is an accomplished artist and she taught me advanced art techniques as soon as I could hold a crayon,” McCarty remembers. His interest in art has catapulted him into the position of a modern-day preservationist: His cultural heritage influences his work and through his teachings, everything he knows about Native American art gets passed down.
McCarty lived and grew up in Neah Bay, Washington, the home of the Makah people. His father taught him how to fish when he was fourteen. “I got in trouble one year,” he says, “And my father grounded me to the boat for the summer.” This is where he learned to be a fisherman–something that he does each summer. McCarty says his brother still teases him over that incident.
“I really enjoy being out on the ocean,” he admits. Fishing is his summer gig. When school gets out each year, he returns to help his family with the salmon fishing season. He doesn’t see himself moving back permanently anytime soon, though. He has grown to love the city.
In 2002, McCarty earned his Master of Teaching in Visual Arts degree from The Evergreen State College. Following that, he ran the Gifted and Talented Program and taught students how to draw, paint, mono-print, and carve at Olympia’s Wa He Lut Indian School. In 2007, McCarty moved to his current position at Chief Leschi Middle/High School. At Chief Leschi he is a full-time art teacher and also works with students almost every day after school for Chief Leschi’s 21st Century After School Program.
McCarty first learned about Tacoma’s B2 Fine Arts Gallery from their “Beyond Crayons and Finger Painting” exhibit in October, 2010. It was a community outreach art collection and workshop provided by B2 Gallery, celebrating the artistic skills of youth. Some of McCarty’s students from Chief Leschi had the opportunity to show their artwork there. He knows the importance of giving young artists a chance to exhibit their work. “I have been an exhibiting artist since 1995,” he notes. “Some of my first pieces are part of the permanent exhibit at the museum in Neah Bay.”
At B2 Fine Arts Gallery, McCarty displays both contemporary and traditional work as part of the “Coyote Forward” exhibit. “I am always torn between traditional carving and printmaking,” he says. Because of the large demand for his traditional carvings, McCarty spends much time carving in his studio, but is intrigued by the process of making prints.
“Printmaking is a multi-step process and I see every printing session as an exploration,” he explains. “It is always a surprise when I press the ink to the paper.” Though making prints is not a traditional form, McCarty uses traditional designs as part of those pieces. His contemporary prints, including his “Tailspin” series and “Culture Shock,” are each one-of-a-kind. McCarty used several linoleum plates to create his “Tailspin” series and brought the Northwest traditional form to its most basic element–the “U” shape. For “Culture Shock,” he used woodblock carvings and incorporated traditional Makah designs. One of the things he likes to do is to reverse his plates in order to create different effects.
For McCarty, preparing for an exhibit like “Coyote Forward” is a bit difficult. “With an exhibit, you have to hold onto all of your pieces,” he says. Usually he sells his pieces as he makes them and convinces himself, “I can always make another one.”
As far as “Coyote Forward” goes, McCarty’s favorite piece is his miniature model of a Makah seal hunting canoe. That piece is currently displayed at the entrance to the gallery on the front desk. “My interest in making miniatures was sparked when I made the 1/8″ to 12″ scale model of the Ozette Village for the Makah Cultural and Research Center.” That work, which he created after he graduated from high school, is still on display at Neah Bay.
What is the most important thing McCarty wants his students to know? “Learn your heritage with care, preserve it with beauty, and pass it on.”
B2 Fine Arts Gallery is located at 711 Saint Helens Avenue, Suite 100, in Tacoma and is open Tuesdays-Saturdays from 11 am to 5 pm. For more information about the B2 Gallery, call them at (253) 328-5065 or visit their website. For more information about McCarty, read “The Artist and the Whale Hunter,” a story from a travel/photography blog written by Erik Gauger, a writer from our area.