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Releasing the Forms Within: James Madison, Storyteller and Craftsman

Tulalip artist James Madison reflects on learning to listen to the wood.

Master carver James Madison carries a chainsaw through his shop on a weekday morning. He’s wearing a Tulalip Red Hawks hooded sweatshirt and leather work boots dusted in curled wood shavings. He’s headed to a shed to put a motorized cutting chain to a 998-year-old reclaimed Western Red Cedar.

Inside the studio, long ribbons of cedar shavings are piled on the gravel floor next to a Shop-Vac. Rusty chains are piled in the corner, and a level hangs from a nail on the wall.

This is a place where spirit meets materiality.

Often James Madison works with cedar. But really, he works with almost any artistic material — yellow cedar, glass, stone, bronze, and fabricated metal — honing each medium to accommodate his cultural and aesthetic intuitions. He’s one of those rare artists who can hop from media to media effortlessly. Indeed, right now he’s working on three pieces in three different locations, simultaneously. Each tells a story.

One definition of genius — being able to hold multiple ideas in your mind at one time.

In the shop, he’s honed the old cedar into the shape of a thirteen-foot orca dorsal fin. The “fin” rests on a half-dozen sawhorses underneath scaffolding and fluorescent lights.

“The wood is like a spirit or a ghost,” Madison says. “It speaks to me. My grandfather used to tell me to listen to the wood.” A knot or a warp in the trunk isn’t a mistake: it’s a form yet to be realized.

At nights Madison dreams of what the cedar wants to be, what spirits are in the material, trying to be let out.

The next morning he goes to the shed, selects his tools from a leather holster and starts working. I watch him thunk-thunk-thunk with a custom-made adze, slowly defining the domed crest of a sasquatch scalp. Madison is releasing the forms within the material.

He approaches each piece of artwork with a message, even if he only understands that message intuitively at the outset of the project.

“I basically see something and I let Mother Nature take over; I let it tell me what it’s supposed to be. It’s the way my culture is, the way I was raised.”

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The spirit of the piece that James is working on in the carving shed today is that of a grandfather Bigfoot. The muscular sasquatch is depicted walking to a river with his two sons. The old Bigfoot teaching them how to catch salmon.

In the cultural tradition of Madison’s family, Sasquatch isn’t a scared animal running from a video camera. Instead, he’s a brother to man, a helper, a conduit of the old ways.

James Madison’s cultural heritage is that of the Tulalip peoples. The Tulalip Tribes are comprised of thirteen Northwest Coast indigenous families. After the signing of the Treaty at Point Elliot in 1859, the US Government relocated these families to a reservation, north of present-day Everett, Washington for “education” and assimilation into white culture. Today, the Tulalip Tribes are a self-governed entity of about 4,000 members.

Almost always personal to some degree, James Madison’s stories are most often Tulalip stories, specifically the lore of the Coast Salish/Tlingit Nation.

Growing up, James wanted to be a football player. After a failed attempt to play college ball (a coach stood him up in another state) James moved back to the Tulalip Reservation. He was unsure what he wanted to do.

He decided to study visual art and media, first at Everett Community College, then at the University of Washington. His main focuses were bronze casting and jewelry classes.

He became absorbed in his studies. To hear James describe it, what he felt was something like a calling. He was supposed to be an artist.

“[I was attracted to] Cubism at school... surrealism, Dali. Van Gogh influenced me the most out of European artists. I was fascinated with Cubism, abstraction, and Van Gogh’s colors.

These modern and Western influences add a unique “flavor” to Madison’s carvings and sculptures, in which the viewer can pick up elements of cubism and the assemblage of Picasso.

“I studied a lot of different media at the university, [especially] metal fabrication. I cut things out of metal, welded them together, creating sculptures.”

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Today, James Madison works at a variety of studios and workshops, depending on which project he’s working on. Sometimes he works with a chainsaw or adze in a carving shed. Sometimes he “pops up” at regional glass studios. Metal fabrication, bronze casting, and stonework each require different venues and processes for creation.

James is widely recognized both regionally and in the art community. He’s commissioned to custom-make pieces: carved canoe paddles, maps, giant sculptures, and totem poles for private residences.

“I feel very fortunate,” he says of his career. “It’s a dream job, a dream occupation. I got a lot of support from my tribe, my people, the county, the city of Everett. I’ve been very very appreciated and loved. I’m very grateful.”

Madison has been on the Snohomish County Art Commission. He’s an art advocate, lobbying for sculpture parks, raising money for arts programs. His work can be seen in public sculpture parks, downtown urban sidewalks, and at the Tulalip Hibulb Cultural Center.

But in the end, all of James Madison’s efforts are in the service of relaying invaluable information. He sees himself as a conduit.

“Everything I do has a story to it, has information about my culture, historical stories, stories passed down from my grandfather to my father, to me. Stories so far back we can’t remember how far back.”

His are tales that need to be told. His are forms that need to be released.

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Where to see his work

“Diving rock.”

Totemic image of a man grappling with an octopus, representing water power.

“Raven Captures the Sun.”

Fabricated metal cube with Tlingit and Salish design motifs.

“Mother Earth.”

18’ driftwood sculpture portrait located on the spot where the Point Elliott Treaty was signed.

“Tulalip People.”

Cubed metal sculpture featuring salmon climbing a fish ladder.


Totemic 135’ portrait of Madison’s great grandmother, carved from a 998-year-old tree.

Managing Editor
Richard Porter
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