Look inside the creation of the Billy Frank Jr. statue that will represent Washington state in D.C.


Billy Frank Jr., the iconic tribal fishing rights activist and Nisqually leader, fought all his life. In the statue of him Washington state is sending to the nation's Capitol, he is sitting by the bank of the Nisqually River with a smile.

"He has been fighting all his life, been in jail for many, many times," Haiying Wu, the Seattle artist sculpting the statue, told The Olympian. "So I thought it would be good to have him sit down, get some rest."

The 11-foot statue is soon to be one of two representing Washington in the U.S. Capitol's National Statuary Hall, to which each state donates two statues honoring figures in their history.

Frank will be the ninth Indigenous figure with a statue in the collection, and the first to represent Washington.

Wu is sculpting the statue at South Puget Sound Community College, which is hosting the project in collaboration with the Nisqually Indian Tribe and Washington State Arts Commission. He works in SPSCC's Scene Shop, where anyone can stop by to watch him from 1 to 3 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays.

He started sculpting in April and hopes to finish by the end of the year, after which the statue will be installed in not just the U.S. Capitol, but the Washington State Capitol as well. The statue's installation in D.C. is slated for 2025.

"What Billy's story allows you to do is reclaim some of that history that has not been taught about Washington in the past," Debbie Preston, Nisqually Indian Tribe communications and media services director, told The Olympian.

Frank's story involves conservation and salmon restoration efforts, Indigenous language erasure and the Nisqually Indian Tribe's fight for their treaty-protected rights.

"That's Washington history encapsulated in one statue," Preston said.

From concept to Capitol

Wu saw ArtsWA's call for artists to design and sculpt a statue of Frank just two days before the application deadline on June 9, 2022.

"I almost missed this opportunity," Wu said with a laugh.

A couple of weeks after Wu submitted his application, he heard back: He had been selected as one of four finalists for the project.

He presented his concept in January 2023 to the Billy Frank Jr. National Statuary Hall Selection Committee, which includes members of Frank's family, tribal members, lawmakers and archivists. He was the first of the finalists to present.

ArtsWA communication manager Michael Wallenfels told The Olympian that all four finalists presented "incredible" proposals. But Wu's captured something about Frank the committee was not even sure anyone could.

"There was just kind of this gasp. And people that knew Billy said, 'That's Billy,'" Wallenfels said. "He was sitting down. He had that warmth in his posture, that warmth in his expression."

The committee selected Wu for the project. Soon after, in May 2023, he sculpted a one-and-a-half-foot model, then a 4-foot maquette in October 2023 that the Architect of the Capitol approved in March.

But Wu said both scales were only studies of the basic structure and composition of the final statue, which is 9 feet tall with a 2-foot base.

To upscale the maquette, Wu 3D-scanned and printed it in styrofoam. For the last two months, he has been trimming, cutting and editing this styrofoam base. When he is satisfied, Wu said he will cover the styrofoam in clay before the complete base is cast in bronze.

"You cannot just work on a small-scale maquette and 3D-print it to a large scale and use that as final product," Wu said. "You miss lots of details."

And the statue is full of these details. Around Frank's neck are his bolo tie and medicine pouch, and slung over his left knee is a blanket tribal members receive after a lifetime of service. Frank's jeans and cowboy boots are the same ones he wore when he "meant business," Preston said.

As an Indigenous person, Frank was part of the land, so Wu said a European-style block would not do for the base; it had to be a piece of earth. The base crests in a wave of Nisqually River water and salmon, atop which lies the log of driftwood Frank sits on by the bank.

The only addition the committee asked Wu to make to the statue was a fishing net, which he tucked under Frank's legs and draped over one side of the base, just behind the salmon.

"It looks so 100% like Billy's walking into the room," said Preston, who worked with Frank for 23 years.

The artists behind each statue in the National Statuary Hall may choose the color of the bronze casting and the stone for the base.

Traditional bronze castings are coffee brown or darker, Wu said. For Frank, Wu decided on a lighter shade that stands out and better shows the volume and dimension of the statue. He has yet to decide on the stone, but he wants it to be from Washington state.

"The idea is everything from Washington state. Because (the statue is) a gift from Washington state," Wu said. "And the artist is from Washington State, and the bronze casting will be from a Washington state foundry and then we will get what kind of stone we can have in Washington state."

Engraved into the base will be Frank's name and his famous phrase, "Tell your story." One side will bear the words in English, the other in Lushootseed.

Wu's story began in China, where he was born and attended the prestigious Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. He became a member of a public art commission and created public artwork in the country before immigrating in 1989 to the U.S., where he got his master of fine arts in sculpture from the University of Washington.

Memorial projects have been at the core of Wu's career, he said. Among those projects is the Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Seattle.

This project marks two firsts: It will be the first Indigenous figure representing Washington state in National Statuary Hall, and it will be the first Chinese American artist behind any figure in the collection.

"As a person from the land, a person of culture and a person of resources, he has a clear understanding of Billy's heart, Billy's values and Billy's spirit. And you can see it in the carving," state Rep. Debra Lekanoff, who sponsored the project in a bill, told The Olympian. "When you look at it, Billy's smile fills the room and his presence fills your heart. And we hope that's what people will feel when they walk through Washington, D.C."

Why Billy Frank Jr.?

The statue of Frank is replacing one of doctor and missionary Marcus Whitman. But the project wasn't so much about taking out Whitman; it was always about putting in Frank.

Whitman has represented Washington state in National Statuary Hall for over 70 years, making it the older of the two Washington statues. The other statue, of Mother Joseph, has been in National Statuary Hall for over 40 years.

Since legislation allowing states to switch out their statues passed in 2000, many states have done so. Now for the first time, Washington is too.

"This is an opportunity to bring in a contemporary Washingtonian that can resonate with the current generations and kind of speak to the state that Washington has become as opposed to the state we were in the 19th century," ArtsWA's Wallenfels said.

When it was decided that Whitman would be switched out, Preston said there was a consensus that if anybody should be switched in, it should be Frank.

He was a leader in the Fish Wars, a series of "fish-ins" tribal members organized in protest of treaty-protected rights violations, that led to the Boldt Decision — a court ruling that affirmed tribes' right to own half of the salmon harvest and co-manage fisheries with the state.

After Frank died in 2014, then-President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. The Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge was renamed after him, to the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, the same year.

While he is not the first contemporary Indigenous figure with a statue in National Statuary Hall — Cherokee performer and actor Will Rogers of Oklahoma is — Frank is the first to be honored for his activism on behalf of other Indigenous people in the 21st century, Wallenfels said.

He is taking Whitman's place in National Statuary Hall, where he and Chief Standing Bear of Nebraska will stand on either side of the entrance to the House Chamber. Rep. Lekanoff, who is Alaska Native, said she hopes Frank serves as a reminder to all Americans of whose land they call home.

"As you walk in, whether you're walking to the floor to make a decision on a congressional bill, whether you're going to advocate for a congressional bill, whether you're working and living in Washington, D.C., or you're a visitor, you'll see Billy," Rep. Lekanoff said. "And he'll ground you and remind you of who you are as an American."


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