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Adam McIsaac carves and casts new art for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's new building



Photo Credit: PHOTOS COURTESY OF DEAN BAKER - Sculptor Adam McIsaac off some works in progress (above and left). He has excelled at Pacific Northwest Native art over the years.After 20 years carving his way into the heart of Pacific Northwest Native art, Adam McIsaac is turning his hand to 21st century applications of those motifs, at times using aluminum.

“I’m moving more into Adam McIsaac work,” he says. “There is less demand for Native art than there was.”

He is finishing his latest job, a $68,880 arts grant for atmospherics in the new Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Department in Salem.

“I think Adam’s sensibility, both his relationship to the natural world and his artistic work, are a perfect fit for the ODFW headquarters,” says Meagan Atiyeh, visual arts coordinator for the Oregon Arts Commission, which administered the grant and chose McIsaac over 45 other artists who applied for the job.

“It’s been a nice opportunity to create work that is integrated into the building itself,” she says.

McIsaac, 40, is a Hockinson, Wash., native and a graduate of Clark County’s Prairie High School. Of German, Scottish and Irish blood he learned the ways of the Columbia River Native people, starting at the knee of his father, a biologist.

He has translated his love of Native American art and the natural world into totem poles, canoes, spoons, ladles, masks, wall panels and metal moldings. He apprenticed for years with legendary North Coast artist Duane Pasco, learning the totems — from owls to frogs, ducks, warriors and other lore.

He’s worked closely with Native people, especially with the Chinook tribe, including tribal leader Tony Johnson, in making traditional art from totem poles to canoes.

Public art has been McIsaac’s forte for 20 years, and his influence is growing.

He made carvings for Blue Lake State Park in Troutdale, a panel in Multnomah Falls State Park and an eight-foot cedar work in the Tualatin library. He built a huge set of double doors for the Port of Portland Building. He created an installation for the Portland State University recreation center.

McIsaac also carved eight-foot panels as wallboards for the new Oregon State Hospital wing in Salem. Intricate wallboards can take three weeks to carve, he says. Maybe 120 hours of close work, carving away with a chisel under a bright light.

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF DANNY KNUDSEN - An amphitheater at Ridgefield, Wash., includes one of Adam McIsaacs first public art metal projects. He works on metal art with Portlands Fouch Electric Mfg. Co. & Profile Laser.  In Washington, McIsaac carved a totem pole for the La Center City Hall and a giant sculpture called “The Navigator” that welcomes students into the Columbia Valley Elementary School in Vancouver. He carved poles and figures for the Cathlapotle Plankhouse, a full-scale replica Indian meetinghouse at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. He made Columbia River art panels for Skamania Lodge in Stevenson.

Recently, McIsaac has installed a series of metal sculptures for the City of Ridgefield. “It’s stunning,” says Danny Knudsen, operations manager of Fouch Electric Mfg. Co. & Profile Laser in Portland, who worked with him on the project.

Now Knudsen is working with McIsaac on the Salem building, using a Fouch’s fiber-optic cutter to fabricate the aluminum salmon McIsaac created.

“Adam’s artwork is great, and he’s a pleasure to work with,” Knudsen says.

McIsaac also teaches carving, sometimes to Indian people at reservations at Grand Ronde and Tokeland, Wash.

But his focus now is on the Salem building.

“As of today, four of Adam’s pieces of art are on display in the ODFW headquarters building,” says Rick Hargrave, deputy administrator for information and education at the agency. “The pieces are hand-carved wooden planks with geometric and zoomorphic imagery representing Oregon’s game and nongame species. They are mounted over each door that lead into the Commission Room.

“He’ll soon be mounting some large salmon pieces on an outside wall that, when finished, will provide a dramatic interpretation of the journey of this iconic Oregon fish,” Hargrave says.

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF ADAM MCISAAC - Adam McIsaac holds one of the coho salmon sculptures he has made for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife building in Salem. The huge, fabricated aluminum coho salmon honor the ODFW’s work to bring back the salmon runs, McIsaac says.

McIsaac says he is making use of metal art for the first time because some public agencies won’t accept his woodcarvings for outdoor displays as they once did. “They want metal, bronze, concrete, something that is maintenance free. I’m feeling the push to broaden my scope,” he says.

“For the fish and wildlife project, they were interested in my work and its ties to the Northwest, but they weren’t too interested in the Native American art, which is what I usually do.”

So he’s left that behind for this project.

“I’m branching out, and I’ve used all the stylistic conventions I’ve used to do my Columbia River art, and to apply it to a non-Native theme,” he says.

At times, McIsaac says, it’s been difficult getting art dealers or public agencies to accept Native art from an artist who is not a Native. But his relations with the tribes have been good.

“The tribes love it. I’m in good standing with all the tribes,” he says. A large collection of his individual pieces are on sale at Stonington Gallery in Seattle, but galleries in Portland have declined to carry his Native art because of his heritage, although he has shown art occasionally in Portland festivals.

To branch out from Native work, he went to the advertising engravings from the late 1890s to early 1900s for Winchester deer rifles and shotguns.

“They all have to do with wildlife, and I got inspired and transfered them into wood — some pheasants, some oak leaves, a deer at the center, some scroll patterns,” he says.

“The theme was wildlife, so I looked at it all: wetlands, big game species, upland birds, the flora and fauna,” he says. “The panels reinforce the mission of the agency. A lot of these designs go into the council room, so I have one with two bucks fighting, bighorn sheep, and so on to suggest the butting of heads.”

McIsaac pointed to a cedar panel he is finishing in his studio on the eight-acre rural homestead east of La Center, Wash., he shares with his wife, Mandi, a psychological counselor, and two of their home-schooled children, Cooper, 10, and Cloey, 8. Another daughter, Katie, 21, is an agriculture and business major at California Polytechnic University.

They live with a female pet raccoon named Coonie, a 20-year-old sulcata tortoise, and a couple of dogs.

Adam and Cooper recently returned from 10 days hiking in the Idaho wilderness, each bagging a deer.

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