For the Pacific Northwest indigenous people, art is a carrier of culture, of tribal legend and history. Art is created in families and connects the community. Most importantly, art is a way of healing, of recovering spiritual roots. For Taholah artist Ezekiel Serrano, 36, healing is a vocation expressed both in his work as a certified group trainer at the Taholah Indian Health Clinic and in his deeply spiritual art.

Serrano’s work at the clinic includes teaching traditional skills such as gathering and preparing medicinal herbs and living o‑ the land. Many elders struggle with diabetes and bene­ t from a return to a traditional diet, Serrano says. While teaching them, Serrano is learning a wealth of knowledge about the history of his people.

“I could quit my job and be a full-time artist, but my work in the clinic goes hand in hand with my art,” he explains.” In order to create good art, one needs inner balance. My work helps me keep my spiritual infrastructure in place.”

Born to a Quinault mother and a Filipino father, Serrano lived only the ­ first four years of his life in Taholah. His family’s move to Hoquiam placed a signi­ficant distance between the boy and his Quinault roots.

While attending Hoquiam schools, Serrano discovered his love for art, taking art classes throughout middle School and high school, and even in college. After earning his bachelor’s degree in biology from Eastern Washington University, he parked cars for a year at the Quinault Casino before landing his current position at the Taholah Clinic.

Serrano says he deeply enjoys his work with the elders. “Gathering camas root and cooking stinging nettles brought me back to the land,” he says. “I was back from the fraternities and clubs. I got re-rooted.”

In Northwest Coastal art, traditional geometric shapes and stylized ­figures constitute a language in which the artist tells the spiritual history of his tribe. The shapes are intricately connected reflecting the connection of the human community with their natural and supernatural environment, Serrano explains. He had studied legends and tribal history online and in books to enlarge his artistic vocabulary before the Quinault elders helped him learn art the indigenous way.

The artist’s immersion in tribal culture has resulted in a stunning array of traditional Quinault art, including ceremonial masks, paddles, drums and figurines. At the same time, he has been exploring new ways of using tribal motifs in paintings, vector designs and, most recently, silk screening.

Many mythological characters inhabit Serrano’s art, including Thunderbird, the supernatural messenger from the spiritual realm to the physical. He is featured in a beautiful, brightly painted ceremonial mask. Other masks represents Raven, crafty and creative, who gets into a lot of trouble but is also smart and wise; and Wolf, the protector, who is delicate and calm but at the same time a ­fierce leader.

Carvings of two wooden feathers tell of the mythical Eagle with large feathers that pulled o‑ the top of a cedar tree. He carried it to the top of a mountain and all sorts of birds dwelt in the tree. Serrano’s 6-by-3-foot Eagle Song Carrier carving has a place of honor as a backdrop in the Taholah Tribal Council Chambers. Eagle is a knowledge keeper. A carving of Eagle’s image was traditionally carried in ceremonies.

The wood carving Salmon Run is a 5-foot-diameter circular relief depicting the life cycle of the salmon with a creator mask in the center. This carving depicts a magni­fied version of a spindle. Traditionally everyday objects such as spindles, baskets, boxes, combs, spoons, and paddles were beautifully decorated in Quinault culture and imbued with spiritual significance. Each shape, each figure has a name and a story connecting everyday objects with the spiritual world, Serrano says.

“Art is sacred,” declares Serrano. As a Christian, he is trying to show the tribe how Christianity and indigenous beliefs come together. “God spoke to us in different ways in the early times,” he explains. “He spoke in legends.” Not everybody in the tribe agrees with him, but they respect his beliefs.

Serrano has been proli­fic in his art since he returned to Taholah.

His work has been recognized at home and beyond. A selection is on exhibit in the Quinault Cultural Center, 807 5th Ave., in Taholah. From his strong foundation in traditional design, Serrano has taken his art into the modern world, creating promotional designs for events and organizations.

In 2018, he won a contest designing a logo for the Food Sovereignty Coalition, a group of 43 tribes promoting traditional foods. In the same year, Serrano was proud to collaborate with another Quinault tribal member on a commission for the Tribal Tales Exhibition at the Seattle Children’s Museum. He illustrated a story written by storyteller Harvest Moon, titled “Dog Legend,” creating a giant single-page vector graphic cartoon. The story was hung in a case of Plexiglas for children to read and touch.

In the same year, Marvin Oliver, a Quinault/Alaskan elder and professor of art at Washington State University, came to introduce Taholah artists to new techniques and media. He inspired Serrano to learn silk screening, which has become a favorite technique to create multiple copies of his artwork. Under Oliver’s mentorship, Serrano enthusiastically embarked on a project of great signi­ficance for the tribe, a pair of totems cut out from sheets of steel with decorative oxidized shadings.

The Taholah community is in the process of raising the village above the tsunami line where the new Generations Building will house Head Start and Senior Services, the young and the old. Serrano’s steel totems are to be mounted on the entrance columns. The order of the figures from top to bottom shows how Quinault society views age. Oliver created the two elders at the bottom, sitting in prayer positions with hands raised. They hold up the families with their wisdom and knowledge, teaching the younger generation what they need to know. The adults take refuge under the wings of the double-headed eagle, the knowledge keeper. On top, Chithwin, the bear, represents the youth.

Serrano is currently working on another large commission for the tribe, a project close to his heart as a healer. The Quinault Museum has recently recovered The Guardian, an 18-inch healing statue from a museum in Chicago. Serrano was commissioned by the tribe to carve a 17-foot version of The Guardian to be mounted on a hillside in Taholah. His knowledgeable mentors, cousins Titus and Guy Capoeman, are collaborating on this project. A large cedar log is housed under a lean-to of the veterans’ building. The site right on the river is ideal.

“People stop by to talk and to pray,” says Serrano. “I have everybody take a knife and cut. This is community work.” He is using handmade tools in his work, among them an adze.

While using his adze to carve his healing statue, Serrano was inspired to create his own version of the power ­ fist symbol. A black and white computer graphic of a ­fist pulling an adze conveys this healer’s take on the symbol: “The fist should be used for work, for creating!”