Meet the Indigenous, all-women team bringing new art to Seattle’s waterfront

In 2024, when you walk from Pike Place Market to the Seattle waterfront, you’ll be welcomed by a new art installation from three Indigenous makers. The forthcoming permanent artwork from artists Malynn Foster, Tamela Laclair and Kimberly Deriana is part of a major overhaul of the waterfront, one that makes space for visual art.

The work will be located on the waterfront’s Overlook Walk, an elevated public park connecting Pike Place Market and the waterfront; the new artwork will be the site’s focal point. Both are still currently in early design phases.

The Overlook Walk is one of 12 sites along the waterfront in the process of being redesigned following the 2019 removal of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, filling in 17 blocks from Pioneer Square to Belltown. The newly designed spaces will incorporate elements like accessible boardwalks, a new two-way bike path, green storm water infrastructure, public green spaces, improved lighting in pedestrian areas and art.

Slated for completion in 2024, Foster, Laclair and Deriana’s installation is one of a few the city has commissioned for the new waterfront, with the goal of contextualizing the waterfront’s importance to Coast Salish peoples.

“We hope this artwork will help to acknowledge and elevate the history and culture of the Coast Salish peoples, and help bring it to life for residents and visitors to our city,” Office of the Waterfront and Civic Projects director Marshall Foster said in a news release announcing the commission for Foster, Laclair and Deriana.

Two other projects announced earlier will feature work from Indigenous artists. Shaun Peterson (Puyallup Tribe) will make three welcome figures that will stand over Pier 58, titled “Family.” Another project in collaboration with L.A. artist Oscar Tuazon will feature work from three carvers: Tyson Simmons and Keith Stevenson (Muckleshoot) and Randi Purser (Suquamish).

But Foster, Laclair and Deriana’s project is the only one from an all-women collaborative, and this is important to them. “There’s this wisdom of our women and all the different roles we have,” said Foster. “We all bring something different to the table, but it all comes from the same place of ancestral wisdom.”

In practice, this means Laclair, an enrolled Skokomish tribal member, works in painting, basketry and weaving, and also makes custom apparel. Foster, an enrolled member of the Squaxin Island Tribe, gravitates between traditional basket weaving, carving, large-scale painting and public projects, including a stone sculpture for the Washington State Convention Center she’s working on in collaboration with her husband, who is also an artist. (“Everything I do he touches and vice versa.”) And Deriana, who is Mandan and Hidatsa and “a third-generation urban Native,” brings a framework of architecture and design to the project.

Together, the three women are planning to integrate these approaches into a permanent artwork informed by, as Foster put it, a shared dedication to keeping artistic traditions alive and “the stories of our women that so often are just underappreciated and underrecognized, underviewed, underrepresented.”

The details are still coming together, but the end product will be a public, permanent installation on the Overlook Walk, a space where pedestrians can travel between Pike Place and the waterfront while staying elevated above the street, with public plazas, terraced landscaping and panoramic views of Mount Rainier and the Olympics.

The collaboration felt natural and harmonious, said Foster; Laclair is her cousin, and all three women have collaborated with each other on past projects. Laclair recalled working with Deriana on the Skokomish Community Center. (Laclair designed the gym floor.)

“That’s how Indian Country works,” said Deriana, who described getting to know Laclair’s mother while at work on that project. “We’re just connected … it was just this full-circle connection that we were so grateful that we have.”

Another connection proved important to their process. Originally, Deriana, Foster and Laclair had applied for a different commission through the Seattle Aquarium. Though they weren’t selected for it, they were added to a roster by artist Asia Tail, co-curator of yəhaw̓ Indigenous Creative Collective. That later led to an invitation to apply for the waterfront project.

Ruri Yampolsky, waterfront program arts manager for the city of Seattle, said the Overlook Walk is important as “a welcoming place” within the larger waterfront. “We wanted to recognize that the waterfront is significant to the local Coast Salish tribes … and really root this place as an Indigenous place,” she said.

But 2024 is a long way off, and the project is very much still in process; Deriana said they’d need to address certain limitations, like the site’s weight constraints, “so we’re gonna have to get really creative and maybe step outside of some of the more traditional materials and get metal or lighter-weight materials.” Other concepts are clear: The work will incorporate traditional practices like basketry, and native plants will be added to the soil to “[reclaim] that little tiny piece of land for all of our peoples,” said Foster.

The group sees this as a process of rematriation, of “putting the spirit of our ancestors and our traditional ways and values back into this tiny little space,” said Foster.

The role of women in Native communities is part of this reclamation, said Deriana, who pointed out that prior to assimilation, many Native societies were matriarchal in their political structures. “In my community, we were the agriculturalists, we were the architects, we owned the homes, and our men were more on the spiritual side, and were the spiritual keepers,” she said. “And so just bringing back that women’s role in society, through architecture or design or art or the way you shape the landscape, that’s something that’s kind of been lost.”

Foster said she also saw the project as a way to bring greater awareness and visibility to Native communities. “As an artist … it’s a huge responsibility to make sure that your people are being represented. … And I guess the other bit is creating visibility — we’re still here — because a lot of people don’t get that in this city,” she said. “They are in love with some romantic notion of who we are, instead of understanding the truth of who we are, who we’ve always been and who we hope to be.”

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