Billy Frank Jr. statue sculptor “honored” to work on project

SPSCC hosting public exhibition for Haiying Wu’s sculpture


Once the Billy Frank Jr. statue is installed in the National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol in Washington D.C., in 2025, sculptor Haiying Wu will be the first Chinese-American to have a statue in the collection.

Wu, whom the Billy Frank Jr. National Statuary Hall Selection Committee chose to design the statue in January 2023, honoring the Nisqually Tribe activist and treaty rights advocate, said the project is a big step toward his dream of leaving a mark on the history of the country, one he immigrated to from China 40 years ago.

“It’s a great opportunity. This is a high-profile project, and it’s a great honor for me,” Wu said. “It’s always been my dream to portray an Indian figure because their facial expressions are very beautiful.”

Wu earned his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Washington School of Art. His notable artwork includes the Seattle Fallen Firefighter Memorial in Seattle’s Pioneer Square and the Auto-Lite Strike Memorial in Toledo, Ohio.

Rep. Debra Lekanoff introduced House Bill 1372 in 2021 to replace the statue of Marcus Whitman in the National Statuary Hall with one of Frank, who dedicated his life to advocate for tribal treaty rights. The committee chose Wu’s design for the project because of his attention to detail, including how he captured Frank’s warmth and pose on a log by the river.

“My father always encouraged educational opportunities for all and participated on college boards,” said Willie Frank III, son of Billy Frank Jr. and chairman of the Nisqually Tribe, in a press release. “Having this in a place where everyone can learn about Nisqually and the art of sculpture is exactly the kind of community he would want.”

For Wu, paying close attention to details, especially for a project of this magnitude, is crucial. While working on the statue at South Puget Sound Community College, where the public can observe his work, he often spent several minutes at a time studying the most minute details including Frank’s shirt sleeves and the folds of his hand that grasped the log upon which he sat. He used several images of Frank to capture his likeness.

“When you work on some of the details, you have to stand back and look at it overall and how the details fit with the rest of the figure. You don’t want to have details that pop out too much,” Wu said. “I am not an extreme perfectionist, but I do want it as perfect as possible for every project in my artwork.”

For this project, Wu first sculpted a 12-inch model in May 2023 to understand the proportions, gesture and arrangement of the different elements he would use. In October 2023, he built a 4-foot-tall model, known as a maquette, which was approved by the architect of the Capitol before he began his work on the full 9-foot-tall clay statue, which will be cast in bronze. He first crafted Frank’s full-scale statue in Styrofoam before he adds clay to complete the piece. He expects to finish the sculpture by the end of 2024.

To capture Frank’s likeness, Wu said he challenged himself to “put myself in his shoes” and dive into the story of how his grassroots campaign influenced the Boldt Decision, which gave tribes in Washington state 50% of the annual fish harvest in 1974.

“He was a man who really had the courage to fight for indigenous people’s rights. I saw lots of pictures of him protesting and fighting with policemen, which are great images,” Wu said. “But those aren’t suitable images for the artwork. I decided to put him sitting on a piece of wood on the Nisqually River, and he’s looking forward to the horizon and this piece of land that he fought for all his life. I think that’s the best way to capture his spirit.”

Wu said Frank’s story reminds him of his and his family’s origins of persistence, including his late grandfather.

“As an immigrant to this country, I went through discrimination in the workplace, and I’ve been working really hard to gradually get into the mainstream of art. That kind of hardship, hard work and spirit, I related to it,” Wu said. “My grandfather lived in China in a harsh society as a typical working class person. But he always kept very positive spirits. His spirit always inspires me.”

He added that working at SPSCC is a “great way” to promote the project and to keep his spirit alive. Visitors can observe Wu’s work from 1 to 3 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays, at SPSCC’s Scene Shop in Building 21, Room 271, 2011 Mottman Road SW, Olympia.