Sunday, March 23, 2008

Interview with Sara Mall Johani, Soul Salmon, By

I first heard of Soul Salmon from an event listing sent to It sounded interesting so I visited their site. What follows is the result of an email interview with Sara Mall Johani, founder and director of Soul Salmon a nonprofit organization based in Washington state.

Q: What is Soul Salmon and what is your involvement?

Soul Salmon, the first "art action" of Tahmanawis (the non-profit mother), in a 2 1/2 year effort, "invites Northwest artists, businesses, institutions and tribes to reimagine and interpret wild salmon in order to educate, inspire local salmon culture and generate charity to save native salmon". I was inspired by the directness of the Chicago art cows and invited my friends and co-conspirators to help deepen the urban public's connection to wild salmon. It's difficult to get our wild Pacific salmon to leap the tall buildings - they need a lot of help - and they are dying, weaker by the day. Urban people live in watersheds too, which is a hidden fact in multi-layered city life, hidden due to daily busy busy-ness of all kinds. Bringing the salmon home to the people through art helps connect two elements of the Pacific Northwest that are both essential and must co-exist for either to be healthy - us and them. Wild salmon's health is equivalent to our own health because we share the environment and its condition reflects our condition.

Q: Why did you choose Salmon sculptures to get your message across?

Some people said "Cows are cuddly" and "art pigs are pretty" - but salmon are just ... well, FISH! I wanted to change that perception, as it had changed in me in 1980 when I directly perceived the power and energy beneath the sea that salmon represent - and they bring that energy to the land in their sacrificed bodies! They feed 150 creatures in the watersheds. The Northwest forests relied on salmon to build them; they are made largely of marine carbon. If people only knew how much we owe the salmon in this unique region, they would stand in awe. Just think - no forests! In a geologically young land what else could feed the uplands that were leached by heavy rainfall and washed with cold, torrential rivers? How to achieve this awe? The word ART comes from the Latin artus, meaning "joint". ART CONNECTS. When you meet a salmon in the street, sporting poetry or wildly painted blossoms - it changes your mind, makes you take notice, captures your imagination in a new, surprising way.

Ray Troll, the renowned "Fin Artist", has agreed to recreate an extinct creature, Oncorhynchus rastrosus - or Sabertooth Salmon - using one of one of our Soul Salmon "blanks" offered for sale at the auction on April 13th. At 8-feet in length, they are almost exactly the size of the Pliocene sabertooth (they also grew much bigger), only they had huge fangs - like the sabertooth tiger. This lifelike model might capture the imagination of the Northwest public and to amaze them that such a creature actually existed here, cousin to the modern sockeye. If anything has the power to "blow one away" - it's art. Imagination makes life worth living.

Q: Once you connect people to salmon and their important role in ecosystems what do you hope will happen? Do you want them to eat less salmon, donate money and time to Salmon related nonprofits, protest clearcutting...?

Simple co-existence with the keystone, salmon, is a dream for me and extends to honoring all the creatures it feeds. When I witness restoration groups come alive in the streams, working together to rekindle the life of the streams and rivers - I see HEALTH! When I participate in community salmon celebrations - I see JOY! When I visit salmon classrooms and see the students' enthusiasm - I see a righteous FUTURE. That makes my hope rise against some pretty dour "reality". Salmon is the essence of health - the leaper, the most generous creature - according to Northwest Native myth. My hope is simple - follow the salmon's wisdom to ourselves, our home. Live well! Become one of the Salmon People and know it!

Q: How does Soul Salmon fit into the urban, state, national planning issues that affect our watersheds? Do wild salmon ultimately need a colorful icon to compete for public attention?

Competition for our attention is a full time business. Media, entertainment, work, worries, pleasures - all vie for our limited minds and emotions. What chance has salmon against that? This is just one attempt, one little leap against all the odds. Who knows what can happen? Keep swimming and - jump! Jump again!

Q: What has been your biggest surprise with this project?

My biggest surprise was the utter beauty of the 35 salmon when they were first brought together in the Bellevue Art Museum last November for our celebration First Splash event. The eclectic approaches to the art of the salmon surmounted each individual salmon and they became a poignant marriage of river, art and salmon winding through the museum, mingling with the buzz of the crowd. Of course we know they would be stunning - but to see it was still surprising.

Q: As I understand it, you involve artists to design & decorate the sculptures and create media events and engage the art establishment to promote them. What are your upcoming plans in Seattle?

Seattle communities and environs will enjoy the Celestial Salmon Circus trailer "driveabout" during all of the first week of April. We will drive a flatbed trailer mounted with ten transformed salmon sculptures that are included in the auction in order to introduce them to the public as personally as possible. We will have media involvement - perhaps they will ride with us in the car while we stop in various places and communities to speak to locals. Starting April 6th, the auction salmon are displayed at The Odyssey Maritime Discovery Center at a preview party and the display continues until the auction on April 13th. Sealed bids are accepted after April 1st so it's possible to participate without actually attending the auction. The auction itself will be fun and funny. Besides offering a gourmet meal - there are rumors of Ella Fishgerald and Salmon Davis Junior may be entertaining....

Q: The art in reflects a change in the role of art and artists in society: environmental art. Does Soul Salmon reflect a similar shift in the role of non-profits and arts organizations?

I remember a heated discussion on KUOW radio in Seattle about the dire question referring in this instance to the Public Pig Art displayed in Seattle at the time. The question was - "But is it art?" My opinion was that is was not - it was merely decoration, not to say this is a bad thing. I say this because in order to reflect a "shift in the role of artists and art in society", something must be at stake; it should be consequential. Of course the environment as an essential element in art at this historical juncture is almost unavoidable - though this is not a universally held notion. But involving the "environment" doesn't necessarily make it "art" either. I do think Soul Salmon has importance as an art form because it seeks - and sometimes succeeds - to change attitudes in fundamental ways. It refers to real issues and offers art the opportunity to be itself - a connecting, articulating principle. Art at its deepest connects us to the mysterious, the other world. I couldn't say if this represents a shift in the role of non-profits and arts organizations. However, if we juxtapose surprising elements and it wakes up a few persons to possibilities that didn't exist before, we have accomplished something.

Q: Have you thought about Soul Humpbacks or Soul Condors or a Soul Great Barrier Reef? What's next?

Long lasting organizational art "actions" consisting of many complex elements is not part of the future, I dare say, for any of the participants of this amazing project. I dare to predict that! Some of us may like to dream up "overnight" art actions - guerilla art - dramatic and galvanizing at its best. Some of us will surely welcome the much-deserved rest from 200% participation for the good of the community at large. We will savor the renewed privacy of our individual lives - and we will most certainly reflect on a job well done. I hope we will remember fondly the intensity, the steep learning curves and the GENEROSITY of this 2 1/2 year period - after time has smoothed the wrinkled surface of these waters, when it is settled to a clear, deep pool. Profound thanks...

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