By Marcy Stamper
Photography by Sol Gutierrez
Virgil “Smoker” Marchand has a rare talent for making massive steel sculptures appear light, almost delicate, without detracting from their commanding power.
Part of this equilibrium comes from Marchand’s intimate personal and artistic connection to each piece and the story it tells. Marchand cuts shapes from steel and then bends them by hand. “There are no fancy tools – I use a 4-pound sledge hammer and vice to bend it,” Marchand said. “It’s just brute force.” He doesn’t heat the steel before working it because it would alter the color.
Seen from afar, Marchand’s sculptures have a majestic presence, silhouettes in the landscape. Some depict Natives in full regalia; others, in ordinary activities like digging for roots. Many are on horseback or incorporate other animals. But get up close, and you encounter appealing details like ornamented pouches and accessories made from beads and bolts, and the ingenious way the pieces of steel are fitted together.
A signature technique of Marchand’s is to punctuate his sculptures with cut-outs of eagles, coyotes, and bears. These cut-outs add visual and conceptual complexity to the sculptures, incorporating traditional spirit animals and creating an opening to the landscape.
For years, Marchand did two-dimensional art, making the rounds of art shows to exhibit and sell his work. When he discovered steel three decades ago, it transformed his work and life. “I loved painting and drawing. But once I got into steel, I knew that was what I wanted to do,” he said.
A member of the Arrow Lakes Band, one of the 12 bands that make up the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Marchand has spent his entire life on the Colville Reservation, except for art school in the Southwest. His art is imbued with this heritage.
Until recently, working steel meant a collaboration with his uncle, who welded the shapes Marchand had extracted from sheets of steel with a plasma cutter. Now that his uncle is in his 80s, Marchand does the entire process on his own, wheeling the steel into his shop on a cart and using a small crane to pick up and level the pieces for assembly.
Marchand’s sculptures have grown increasingly complex over the years. His horses, once constructed from 10 pieces per side, now contain 27 separate sections on each side. The interlocking pieces accentuate the horse’s musculature and imbue the animal with energy and movement.
Each side of the horse weighs about 300 pounds when Marchand assembles the sculpture. Working steel by hand is such hard work that nobody was able to do – “that kind of inspired me,” he said.
Symbols and traditions
The buffalo, which provided food, clothing, utensils, shelter – everything but water – is a symbol that runs through Marchand’s work. It was also his entrée into sculpture. When Marchand started bronze casting, his first sculpture was a buffalo. But he didn’t know about using an armature to support the wax form for the bronze, so he had to store the sculpture in the refrigerator to keep it from melting.
Marchand exhibited that bronze buffalo at an art show, where it caught the eye of a master ice carver, who had a commission to sculpt a buffalo – from ice. He asked Marchand if he’d be willing to work on it with him. “He told me to dress warm,” Marchand said, recalling the seven frigid hours he spent in a freezer.
Marchand used a small chisel to carve the buffalo from the block of ice and, as he got more comfortable with ice carving, learned to wield a chainsaw with subtlety.
But then Marchand discovered steel. At first, it was intimidating. “The first week, I struggled. I wasn’t used to getting burned,” he said. But the next week, his confidence grew, and it “just took off.”
Across the landscape
Hundreds of Marchand’s sculptures are installed in the western United States and Canada, and many can be seen locally. Marchand’s sculpture of a Methow Native on horseback is the centerpiece of the Methow Monument in Pateros. A chief astride a horse looms over the Columbia River at the Beebe Springs Natural Area near Chelan Falls.
Marchand’s sculptures are an integral part of Winthrop’s Homestream Park, which is dedicated to the rivers and fish of the Methow Valley and to the Native people who’ve called the area home for thousands of years.
Homestream creators Phil and Cathy Davis had a vision for the park, and Marchand designed a dozen sculptures around that vision – a Native on horseback carrying a fresh catch of salmon, people fishing and drying salmon, salmon swimming and spawning, and a woman erecting a teepee.
“Phil and Cathy had a dream. It was pretty incredible – they inspired me so much,” Marchand said. “There was nothing in the area that captures the history of the people here.”
On the Colville Reservation, Marchand’s sculpture of root gatherers creates a compelling image on the crest of a hill. The sculpture has been a great source of pride for local students, sparking an interest in their history and culture, Marchand said.
His statue of Sasquatch strides across Disautel Pass between Omak and Nespelem, where the legendary creature is reputed to cross.
Marchand recently finished a commission of Chief Kamiakin for the Yakama Nation Cultural Center in Toppenish. Seated on horseback and dressed in full regalia with a resplendent feather headdress, the chief is 10 feet tall. He holds a spear with 14 feathers, representing the 14 bands of the Yakama Nation.
Marchand has created dozens of sculptures for the Osoyoos Indian Band in British Columbia. Natives in B.C. share history and culture with the Colvilles – they all hunted, fished, and gathered, and rode horses, he said. “Everything I made, I had some relation to it already,” he said.
Most of Marchand’s sculptures are a dusky brown steel that develops hints of rust from exposure to the elements. Some incorporate stainless steel or aluminum for accents, like a shimmering silvery headdress or a ceremonial eagle.
Some clients want even more color. Marchand’s sculpture of a chief at the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre in Osoyoos is decorated by garments painted in primary colors.
Marchand has a profoundly felt reason for situating Native culture at the center of his work. When he was a boy, he was separated from his family and sent to boarding school at St. Mary’s Mission, where Native students were forbidden to speak their language or practice their traditional ways.
“To me, it was like a concentration camp. They took me from someone I loved and tried to take the Indian out of me,” he said. He ran away five times and was finally kicked out in fifth grade.
While artistic kids often seek refuge in art, Marchand doesn’t recall doing more than doodling, and had never thought about becoming an artist. But Marchand’s brother, a talented artist who is now a silversmith, believed Smoker had talent. He and Smoker’s mother submitted an application for Smoker to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe after high school. His brother even created art samples to send to the jury.
Marchand flourished in art school. By his third year, he was exhibiting and selling paintings in the school’s museum. But he never studied sculpture.
After he graduated, Marchand returned to Omak, studied architecture and offset lithography, and got a job with the Colville Tribes, where he has worked, in a number of positions, ever since – for 43 years. Even now that his art is in demand, Marchand still creates all of it on evenings and weekends. He was recently elected to the Colville Business Council, the governing body of the Confederated Tribes.
Marchand has been widely recognized for his art, including Best of Show and People’s Choice in art exhibits. This year, he was the recipient of a Community Spirit Award from the First Peoples Fund.
Marchand hopes to build another shop for a studio at home where he can create without the plasma dust from his steel work. “The beauty of the shop was that I would sometimes just sit, sketch, and look at books – not necessarily paint,” he said. “Sometimes I inspired myself just by thinking and being in there.”
“If you have a dream, don’t ever give up – just keep doing what you want to do,” Marchand said. “It took me 30 years to find steel. I can’t explain how much fun I have doing it, even though at the end of the day, I’m so tired I couldn’t even walk.”
“I don’t know why I love it so much – it’s such hard work.”
To commission an art piece from Smoker, you can reach him via email or phone at firstname.lastname@example.org or 509- 322-8677.