Next time you’re at Bellingham International Airport, don’t miss an opportunity to peek at “It’s Mine,” the new horizontal Coast Salish Story Pole located a stone’s throw from Halibut Henry’s, just next to the window. The pole was dedicated at a standing-room-only ceremony at the airport on Mar. 11, 2016, with more than a hundred supporters in attendance.
The magnificent sculpture depicts two Lummi Coast Salish fishermen in a shovel-nosed canoe, pursuing a salmon with a gaff hook. At the other end of the story pole a serpent is after the same salmon, its mouth reaching for the fish. The Coast Salish fishermen wear spiritual paint on their faces, signifying the spiritual healing of the salmon.
Like all story poles, this one is laden with symbolism and Lummi sculptor Felix Solomon was happy to explain its meaning.
“This story pole is all about the salmon,” he said. “The serpent represents everything tough about putting salmon on the table.” Previous to his career as a full-time artist Solomon was a fisherman himself and later ran a food truck, Felix’s Fish & Stuff. So when it comes to the plight of the salmon he has some personal insights.
He attributes “everything tough” to three historical factors: 1. over fishing, thanks to poor regulation of fishing rights by Washington state, 2. the over fertilization of farmlands by farmers, resulting in fertilizer seeping into the water and creating new strains of algae that affect aquatic life, and 3. logging operations that have clear-cut the mountains, resulting in no shade for salmon to spawn.
“Everyone wants to point fingers about who is to blame for the state of the salmon,” he reflected, “but everyone is responsible for the species’ deterioration, – anyone who had anything to do with salmon.”
Solomon’s materials are international. He created the sculpture from an old-growth cedar log obtained in Northern British Columbia. “There’s no more old growth (available commercially) in this county and what there is, like at Mount Baker, is protected,” he said. His work on the sculpture began in 2008, when it was intended for the Maritime Heritage Park in Bellingham, with partial funds raised by the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association. It became evident, part way through, that NSEA was unable to raise the full amount needed. So when BLI approached Solomon last year, looking for a piece of art, “It’s Mine” seemed a great fit and with NSEAs blessing Solomon worked flat out for three months to complete the story pole.
“It was a challenge,” he says of the large piece. “The horizontal pole has four legs, each one depicting a salmon, and each piece is a separate art work in itself.”
Solomon’s carving career started in 1997 when he began teaching himself the art. Later he was mentored by Scott Jensen and Ralph Bennett, and took a few classes. Quickly, it became a passion and Jensen, seeing his student’s seriousness, took him under his wing. Health problems compelled Solomon to close the food truck business in 2009, at which point he became a full-time artist. Among the pieces he’s most proud of are canoes he carved, commissioned by the Stillaguamish Tribe in Arlington and the Sauk-Suiattle in Darrington, and “Evolution of Gambling,” a story pole that stands in the new event center at Silver Reef Casino. He also has two bentwood boxes outside the Steakhouse at Silver Reef. Right now he’s working on a sun mask as he awaits a decision from BLI on their next art commission.
He’s been honored for his canoe carvings at the National Museum of the Native American Indian in Washington, DC, part of the Smithsonian Institute but Solomon seems genuinely surprised by the upward curve in his career and is humble about his clear talent. “I’m really fortunate, I have collectors that seek out my work and come to my studio,” he says modestly.
This is a Whatcom County carver to watch out for – his art is deeply symbolic, compelling and beautiful.