MOUNT VERNON — The idea for Mount Vernon’s newest downtown art sculpture started with a large piece of steel in artist Milo White’s backyard.

White saw more than just a hunk of metal. He saw the beginnings of a Native American-inspired totem pole.

Nearly three-and-a-half years later, the 20-foot-tall, stainless- and weathered-steel structure, adorned with metal depictions of otters, ravens, salmon and a bear — with a golden-beaked eagle on top — stands tall in Riverwalk Plaza, a symbol of old and new.

“The energy it adds to this place is amazing,” White said.

When the idea for a totem pole came to him, White said he quickly realized he lacked the cultural knowledge about totems — and the stories they tell — to do the project justice.

“I know there’s a story there, but I can’t read it,” White said. “I realized I couldn’t do it without having some (Native American) involvement.”

That’s when he turned to local artist and Upper Skagit tribal member Jay Bowen, who designed the structure with the Skagit Valley ecosystem in mind.

“A totem is an infinite library to express what you want to say,” Bowen said. “It was a chance for us to contribute to the community.”

For Bowen, the sculpture represents a new beginning: a peace between Native Americans and non-native people — a tension he said he has felt in the community.

“This is my culture,” he said. “On behalf of my family, I’d like to welcome you to my community.”

He hopes that sense of unity will be felt throughout the community, as well as throughout the world.

“I want this idea to change the world,” he said. “If we can make it work here, we can make it work anywhere.”

The sculpture has an intentional feel of movement, said artist Lin McJunkin, who created the glass parts.

“I love the way the bear wraps around,” she said. “I can see (the sculpture) being a gathering place, a focal point.”

Inside the steel totem are 300 rocks gathered from the Skagit River, each engraved with a name of a person important to the three artists, they said.

While some have suggested the sculpture be moved to a gallery, White said there’s no place he’d rather see it be than in its location overlooking the Skagit River.

“I like it right here,” he said. “It’s about the river. This is where it needs to be.”

The sculpture, titled “Valley of our Spirits,” was dedicated on April 28.

“I still love it,” White said Wednesday. “It has not lost any luster to me.”

Since the dedication, each artist has taken time to come downtown and watch people interact with the sculpture.

“A lot of times I watch and wait and then go talk to them,” McJunkin said. “It’s an opportunity to open a dialogue in our communities.”

Bowen said he hopes people continue to visit the sculpture and that they learn to see it as more than art.

“It’s a working piece of medicine,” Bowen said. “If you’re having a bad day, come down here and stand by it.”

— Reporter Kera Wanielista: 360-416-2141, kwanielista@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kera_SVH, facebook.com/KeraReports

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