Just Below The Surface

January 24, 2017
Evergreen visual arts faculty Alex McCarty and daughter Tierra McCarty carve one of the welcome gures for the Fiber Arts Studio.


Alex McCarty reaches a few inches forward, picks up a curved knife, and digs into a wooden figure that will soon greet guests to Evergreen’s new Fiber Arts Studio. At the same time, he reaches back through the centuries for inspiration.

This is the part of carving Alex ’00, MiT ’02 likes best: When the beauty hidden below the surface begins to emerge.

Over 450 years ago, a mudslide buried the better part of a village near Alex’s childhood home of Neah Bay on the Olympic Peninsula. The disaster left several longhouses and their contents eerily preserved until a massive storm unearthed part of the site in 1970.

Excavation efforts began in earnest. Researchers recovered some 55,000 artifacts and put them on display in the Makah Cultural and Research Center.

“This was truly a gift from the past,” Alex says of the archaeological treasure trove. “We had that cultural wealth intact, which is something that’s very unique to the Makah in this area. People liken it to the Pompeii of the Northwest. It would be like if everything in your office was preserved in an instant. People could see a day in your life.”

Alex recalls marveling at those artifacts— their style and function—during a formative high school trip to the museum. It ignited a creative spark in the budding Native artist.

“I was about to graduate high school,” Alex says, “and I wasn’t sure where my path would lead. The museum curator, Greig Arnold, asked if I was interested in making a model exhibit for the museum. He wanted to work with an up-and-coming Makah youth with potential to pass on the torch. I’ve never looked back from that opportunity.”

Alex immersed himself in Makah traditions and history: “Greig taught me how to approach that research. He encouraged me to think about the impacts of colonialism, Native interactions with the U.S. government, the assimilation of indigenous people—all these concepts and ideas I’d never considered before. And at the center of it all, this tribal artwork.”

Alex determined not to replicate the objects in the museum, but to use them as a creative framework. He looked for prevalent traditional designs and shapes to incorporate in his own art.

“When my work was done at the museum, Alex says, “I had to choose a career path: curator or educator. I thought, well, I don’t really want to be stuck back in the archives dealing with objects when I’m more interested in working with people and passing on my knowledge.”

After earning his bachelor’s degree and then his master’s in teaching from Evergreen, Alex took a job at Chief Leschi School in Puyallup. There he instructed Native woodworking students on the finer points of Coast Salish design. Six years later he joined the faculty at Evergreen.

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McCarty works on a piece for the future Indigenous Arts Campus

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McCarty’s carving tools

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Detail of a carving slated for installation in the Fiber Arts Studio.

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Second Beach at Neah Bay.

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Tierra and Alex carve a welcome gure for the Fiber Arts Studio.


Alex knows his work looks impossibly intricate. But for him, it’s a culmination of techniques passed down through the generations. His hand pauses for a moment, suspended in the air above his carving figure. This one could be anything—a freeing thought.

“When you grow up in a small village and come of age,” he says, “you realize where your place is in that community. Everybody contributes something different to that society. Everybody can’t do the same thing, which creates opportunities for you.

“However, we don’t want to become too specialized. We’ve got to be able to adapt. That’s what I find unique about our teaching philosophy here at Evergreen: interdisciplinary education.”

Beginning in 2015, Alex took that philosophy to a new, international level. He met the Māori master carver Lyonel Grant through a partnership between the government of New Zealand and the Evergreen Longhouse’s Artist-in-Residence program. And thanks in part to a $500,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, Alex and Lyonel began their carvings for the Fiber Arts Studio.

“Lyonel was planning the foundation work for a building that would incorporate Māori art and architecture—the first such structure to be built outside of New Zealand,” Alex explains. “He wanted to connect it with local indigenous people without feeling like he was stepping on toes or offending anyone. So he invited me to bring my Northwest carving expertise to the project.

“Lyonel started by telling me his vision,” Alex continues. “I began learning his carving techniques. Then we looked at how we could blend the Māori carving style with the Northwest Coast style. We put a ‘Salish spin’ on it, and blended the styles.”

They drew further inspiration from an ancient oral history of the northwestern shore of Vancouver Island—one that echoes their own creative partnership.

“I had just read a book called Manawa , which tells about the indigenous connections across the Pacific Rim,” Alex says. “The indigenous people of the Pacific used the ocean as a highway, and they could travel anywhere. There’s evidence of a few Māori landing on Vancouver Island. They got stuck over here because of trade winds. They stayed for three years, married, and took their wives back with them to New Zealand.”

These ancient connections fascinate Alex even now, but he’s just as interested in what the future may hold for the Fiber Arts Studio—a project that represents the next step toward an indigenous arts campus. “This studio will be a place for all people,” he says. “That’s no small goal.”


Alex drops the curved knife and picks up a straight one. Time to accentuate the details. The figure he’s working on doesn’t look like much yet. But in his mind, it’s already a finished article—just as breathtakingly elaborate as the pieces that adorn the walls in the carving studio.

Alex’s imagination dips into the past again, searching for inspirational purchase. His mind doesn’t need to wander far this time.

“My father, John McCarty, came to Evergreen for his undergrad,” Alex says. “He participated in some of the Native American studies programs early in the college’s history. This was when the Longhouse was just an idea, an impossible dream, in the early 1980s. Native American students and faculty knew they needed a meeting house on campus because they didn’t feel like they fit in anywhere. And in time they made it happen.”

Inspired by his father’s dedication to the future of Native education, Alex has taken up the cause in his own right. “About 10 percent of the indigenous population in this area actually attend college, and even less graduate,” Alex says. “That’s a concern for me. I don’t want to be unique. I don’t want to be one of the few indigenous people with master’s degrees. This studio will be an environment where Native people feel they can succeed.”

Alex cares deeply about the future of young Native people. He’s raising two of them himself. One of his daughters, 18-year-old Tierra, is here in the studio, working diligently on her father’s three-person carving crew.

“Tierra is continuing our family’s legacy,” Alex says of his daugher’s artistic calling. “I’ll take her into the carving studio on Saturdays and Sundays and we’ll go right to work. She’s very skilled and has her own set of tools. She can do really clean finishing work—which is a very unique talent, especially at her age. She might go to school here, too, and that’s pretty inspiring.”

Building an indigenous arts campus may once have seemed like an impossible dream. After all, the task is enormous in its scope, complexity, and craftsmanship. Thanks to your generous support, it’s coming to fruition. Alex says his team will be finished with carvings for the Fiber Arts Studio by April. Not long after that, Tierra will begin her college career.