John Williams, Native American Shot While Holding Knife, Created Exquisite Totem Poles that Sold for Hundreds of Dollars

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Take a good look at this miniature totem pole. (Click to zoom in.) Notice the depth of the relief, the vivid colors and the intricate detail on the wings and faces. About two feet high, it's the kind of exceptional work that could sell for as much as $300 at downtown's Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, which liked the totem pole so much that the store decided to keep it instead. And it was done by John T. Williams, the Native American shot Monday by a police officer.

Ye Olde Curiousity Shop had been buying Williams' work for years, owner Andy James told SW this morning. In fact, James said that the store has bought from the Williams' family---famous carvers family from the Nitinaht tribe in British Columbia--for more than 100 years. James says he knew Williams' father, Ray, a fine carver, now deceased. James also stocks a selection of work from Williams' brother Rick.

Of all the Native American sculptors the store has dealt with, Williams "was one of the best," adds the store's general manager Alex Castas. "Sadly, his work deteriorated" in recent years as the artist developed a drinking problem, Castas says.

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Rick Williams (pictured at left) confirms that his brother fell on hard times. Dressed all in black, Rick was at Chief Seattle Club this morning trying to arrange a drumming service at Victor Steinbrueck Park for his slain brother. Williams was a member of the club, which provides meals and other services to needy Native Americans.

Rick says his brother lived at 1811 Eastlake, the so-called "wet house" for chronic inebriates run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center. Previously, after another brother died and Williams started hearing voices, he spent some time at Western State Hospital, according to Rick. Williams also had some run-ins with the law, including a conviction for indecent exposure, according to The Seattle Times.

But Rick is angry about the attention that has been paid to his brother's troubled side, and wants people to know that his brother was a talented, "seventh-generation" sculptor.

Rick also offered some possible explanations for why his brother, who was holding a knife and block of wood when spotted by an officer, might not have dropped the knife when ordered to do so. His brother was wearing headphones while he was sculpting, Rick says. What's more, Williams is deaf in one ear.

On top of all that, Rick says his brother was so accustomed to carving that he would whittle away while talking. "My dad could walk down the street and carve," Rick adds, demonstrating while pretending to carve with quick moving hands. He also takes a knife and half-finished miniature totem pole out of his backpack and shows his real carving technique.

Williams was far from the only down-on-his-luck artist who used the Chief Seattle Club. Executive director Jenine Grey says many members carve, paint or create jewelry. Often they are self-taught or have been schooled by other family members.

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In May, the club began participating in First Thursday art walks. At first, Grey says, it was hard to convince members to display their work. Many could get faster returns by selling their art on the street. But in doing so, they were getting less money than what their art was worth, Grey says. Members are coming around to the idea that they can get "gallery prices" by displaying at the club instead. Typically, the gallery takes in between $400 and $500 on art walks nights, according to Grey.

At tomorrow's art walk, the club will feature a painter named Zona Shroyer (a guest artist rather than a member) in a room known as a "gathering circle" that serves as an ad hoc gallery. More work by actual members can be seen in the center's lobby, including a stunning turquoise jewelry selling for $50 (pictured above).

 
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