Coast Salish art transforms Providence waiting room

Hospital waiting rooms are filled with nervous tension, somehow heightened with spaces often lit with the dull glare of fluorescent lights.

A collaboration celebrated Thursday between the Tulalip Tribes and Everett’s hospital has transformed a long-established Colby Campus waiting room into a more welcoming place.

The Tulalip Community Room, filled with art donated by the Tulalip Tribes, is thought to be the first of its kind in the state, and perhaps in the Pacific Northwest.

What makes it unusual is providing a designated spot for family and friends of a hospitalized tribal member to gather, show their support, and pray. It also serves as a waiting room for the general community, a place to see tribal art and learn about the Tulalips’ history and culture.

The room’s walls are decorated with 10 pieces of Coast Salish art, almost all of which were created by Tulalip artists James Madison and Joe Gobin.

The works include Madison’s 10-foot-long print of migrating salmon. A life-size woven glass sculpture in purple-and-gold hues, representing a dancing shawl, pays homage not only to the Salish culture but Madison’s collegiate alma mater, the University of Washington.

Gobin’s works include a print with a moon, deer and geese, and three decorative paddles with traditional Salish red-and-black designs.

“I just wanted to make something peaceful, not just for our people, but whoever comes in here,” Gobin said.

A timeline documenting tribal history and photographs is displayed in the room’s entryway.

The room was dedicated Thursday afternoon at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett with a ceremony that included prayers, blessings and a tribal thank you song and drumming by Ray Fryberg.

“Seeing it here really brings a big smile to my face,” said Mel Sheldon, tribal chairman.

“It really makes the tribal community proud. It’s a place of belonging and being a part of Providence and being able to show our culture, who we are in a very serene setting.”

Having such a place on a hospital campus is an unusual blending of Western medical practices and American Indian holistic medicine, said Melissa Johnson, cultural program adviser for the Cross Cultural Center at the University of California Davis.

“I think that’s a wonderful idea,” she said. “I’m really glad the hospital was open to it.”

Providence first recognized the need to provide a gathering place for tribal members about a decade ago. But then, the hospital was overflowing with patients. Its emergency room was so jammed that patients sometimes waited for treatment lying on gurneys in hallways. There simply wasn’t room.

“What we saw with the Tulalip Tribes, especially with someone very ill and in critical care, they consider themselves all one family,” said Michelle James, the hospital’s acute care nursing director.

“At any given time, you could have 40 to 50 people in a waiting room … and we didn’t have enough space to accommodate them.”

That changed following the opening of the hospital’s new $460 million medical tower in June of last year. A group that included Sheldon and Dave Brooks, the hospital’s chief executive, began planning how to convert the old building’s waiting room into the Tulalip Community Room. The new medical tower has multiple waiting rooms, as well as the emergency room.

“It’s hard when we have our people over there,” said Gobin. “We all gather there to support each other. We need a roof big enough for everybody.”

Gobin said he remembers when his parents, both active in tribal affairs, were hospitalized. Tribal members often gathered in the same waiting room that is now the home of the Tulalip Community Room.

“We had a lot of tribal members there,” he said. “A lot of people wanted to sing songs and it was hard for the hospital to deal with.

“I think it’s big step forward for our people, for all people,” Gobin said of the new community room. “It’s for everybody. Not just Tulalips.”

Gobin’s and James’ works are on display throughout the region. They collaborated on a driftwood log sculpture and other artwork installed this year at Mukilteo’s Waterfront Park. Their larger-than-life sculptures greet visitors to the main gallery of the Tulalips’ Hibulb Cultural Center.

James’ tall, red metal sculpture is installed on Colby Avenue in downtown Everett. Gobin’s bronze sculpture is displayed at Richmond Beach Park in north King County.

Gobin, 57, carved a canoe in the 1980s that is still in use. “I’ve carved my whole life,” he said.

Yet both artists said they were unusually challenged by deciding what pieces they should create for a hospital setting.

Gobin said he wanted to create artwork visitors would find as calming and steadying. “I wanted to make something that represents our people, the Salish style of art,” Gobin said.

The only other hospital in Washington that has a place for tribal members to gather is in Toppenish. In 1995, the community hospital dedicated a bare 500-square-foot building for use by the Yakama Indian Nation.

“They needed a place where they can pray or do their rituals,” said Derrick Yu, the Toppenish hospital’s administrator.

Madison, 38, said he spent about five months considering how to execute just one of his pieces, the woven glass shawl.

“Joe and I have a lot of responsibility to make something for a room that will mean a lot when people are in pain and hurt — the discomfort of not knowing,” he said.

“These opportunities don’t come very often,” Madison said. “Joe and I are very grateful to have the opportunity. Everybody is learning about who the Tulalip people are. It’s our culture we’re putting into this artwork.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or

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