Making art from cultural traditions
The artwork arrives
Two pieces of artwork recently arrived at the University of Alaska Museum of the North from the same auction in Juneau – a blown glass sculpture called “Copper Totem” and “Sitka Petroglyph,” a beaded collar made of felted wool. Both pieces were purchased in early February at an event sponsored by the Sealaska Heritage Institute in Southeast Alaska. One of the objects will be catalogued and included in the museum’s ethnology collection. The other will become part of the collected works in the museum’s fine arts department.
Understanding that distinction takes sensitivity to the many issues at play, an almost reverence for the role of both culture and art in our society. It’s also about using gut instinct. That’s a challenge Museum Director Aldona Jonaitis wants to talk about, both internally and externally. She says the museum’s fine arts gallery tests pre-conceived notions of what is art and what is ethnology.
“Personally, I don’t like cubby-holing items with labels,” Jonaitis says. “If you look at the museum’s Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery, you’ll see a Sydney Laurence painting next to an Inupiaq fur parka, next to a 2,000-year-old ivory carving from the archaeology collection. These three pieces from radically different cultures are equally important as artistic statements.”
But the museum is all about cataloging objects. That’s where collection managers and curators, trained in the values and distinctions of a discipline come in. For Senior Collections Manager Angela Linn, it starts with questions. “It can be a slippery slope. You have to approach each piece on a case-by-case basis because the label can have ramifications for the artist.”
‘I stayed with the spirit of the petroglyph’
Chloe French grew up steeped in the traditions of her Tlingit culture. She has been artistic her whole life, but it wasn’t until her children were grown and she retired that she could allow herself to work as an artist full time. She taught herself how to appliqué and bead. Discovering Melton cloth, a heavy woolen fabric finished with a smooth face to conceal the weave, made the appliqué easy. Using buttons and beads made it exciting.
“In tribal ceremonies, beaded bibs are often worn with robes or by themselves,” French said. “As soon as the ceremony or dance is over, they are taken off. I wanted to make something that could be worn as decoration all the time. I got the idea for a collar. By using petroglyph designs and button robe techniques, I found the perfect solution. The collar was new, but rooted in the past, making it accessible to everyone.”
When Linn saw the catalogue for the Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Tináa Art Auction she was immediately drawn to the beaded collar on the cover. “That was the piece I wanted.”
Linn was not familiar with the artist, but she was struck by the use of traditional techniques. “It has ancestors in our collection. That appealed to me.”
Some of the questions she asks when determining whether to include a piece in the ethnology collection includes whether the artwork was made by a fulltime artist and whether it was made to be sold in a gallery. “Do the pieces include traditional iconography but use media that is not traditionally found in the culture?”
Listening to Angela Linn talk about the piece, it’s clear she sees the ethnological value. “Beaded collars are a traditional form of regalia. You can see examples of elaborate beaded collars in archival photos. The materials used are also traditional. The wool felt and the beads. Even the colors are traditional.”
The creative effort of an Alaska Native artist isn’t diminished by its inclusion in the ethnology collection. The traditions and stories of a culture are fueled by the creativity of its artists. And often creativity is found in our obsessions. In French’s case, she is taken with petroglyphs. They are images from the past, giving us a sense of place, of history linked with ours through time.
“We have come from a long line of people wishing to express themselves,” French said. “We can't look at these images and have anything but wonder and respect for the people who made them. They are us.”
French says there is something about petroglyphs that is so human, a lasting imprint of our need to make a mark. “Petroglyphs are a one shot deal. Once the rock has been chipped, it can't be put back together. The artist must keep going. The flaws become part of its life as an image. As an observer, we get a feel for the artist -- not a perfected image, but a human one. This much more interesting to me than a perfected piece.”
French says the petroglyph featured in the beaded collar came from a book of images, this one from Baranof Island. “I realized after I appliquéd it to the first layer of Melton cloth, I had used the pattern upside down.” She’s made three other collars with this same pattern, so this mistake made her laugh. She was very careful that it didn't happen with the other three collars. “Now it is one of the little mistakes that make the collar more human. It adds to its story.”
French says the actual petroglyph is round and a perfect design for a collar. She made some modifications. “But I stayed with the spirit of the petroglyph. “
Modern materials highlight the sophistication of traditional forms
Preston Singletary lives in Seattle. He was raised with stories about his Tlingit heritage from his great-grandmother and other relatives from Southeast Alaska. Inspired by this legacy, he dedicated his work to honoring Tlingit tradition and infusing it with new vitality.
His unique interpretations of Tlingit legends are visible in his stunning glass sculptures; many take the traditional forms of crest hats, masks and rattles. He employs a complex combination of techniques, including glassblowing, sand carving and inlaying.
Singletary’s art is included in collections at the Seattle Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Anchorage Museum, and the Heard Museum in Phoenix, among others.
Fine Arts Curator Mareca Guthrie says the UA Museum of the North has been looking for a piece of his art for a long time. “One of the things that I find so interesting is that he works with Tlingit forms but in the medium of glass, which is a material that is associated with a long history in Europe.”
The Copper Totem piece purchased by the museum is 19-inches tall. It is a demonstration of the artist’s sophisticated translation of the iconic Northwest Coast totem pole into a glass sculpture. At the top is a being holding a copper tináa, a symbol of wealth and status in the Tlingit culture. From the front you see the traditional faces of totem legend, but the body of the being continues around the sphere, crouching at angles that look like an abstract geometrical pattern. You notice something different at every angle.
Guthrie said she admires Singletary’s ability to bridge cultures and time periods with his art. “He has studied design in Sweden and trained with some of the best glass artists in Italy and he brings those skills back to Seattle, where he uses them to create something completely new.
“In the case of this particular sculpture, the modern feel of the glass only further highlights the sophistication of traditional Tlingit forms,” Guthrie said. “His work is bravely modern while still being deeply rooted in heritage.”
The wealth of traditions
As a contributor for the catalog, Jonaitis spoke with all the artists featured in the Tináa Art Auction. “Artists have such a deep and inspired connection to what they make and the cultural wellsprings that they tap into.”
She said Singletary incorporated the future vision of the Sealaska Heritage Institute’s plans to build an artistic center in his piece, “the wealth of Tlingit traditions and the ongoing vitality of aboriginal artistic creativity.” Of Chloe French’s piece she said, “[Chloe] has translated what she views as the informal quality of the original petroglyphs into a very modern example of wearable art.”
The two pieces were purchased using the UA Museum of the North’s art acquisition fund, an account created several decades ago with the de-accession of several paintings. Museum best practices dictate that the only pieces a museum can sell are those outside its mission and that the be used for the acquisition and care of new pieces and not general operating costs. The museum tries to strike a balance between purchasing pieces for the ethnology and fine arts collections.
French was thrilled to have her collar added to the ethnographic collection. “That is where it belongs. It is a cross-over piece, contemporary with strong footings in the past. It is exactly what I am most interested in – Tlingits as contemporary people, rooted in our history.”
By including the collar with older pieces, French says the continuity of the history is maintained. “We are seen by the public not only as the beautiful pieces from the past, but also as the emerging contemporary culture that we are.“
Singletary is also concerned with the continuity of traditional culture. In an artist statement he said, “My work with glass transforms the notion that Native artists are only best when traditional materials are used. It has helped advocate on the behalf of all indigenous people—affirming that we are still here—that that we are declaring who we are through our art in connection to our culture.”
Guthrie hopes to display the Copper Totem sculpture soon in the museum’s Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery. As for the beaded collar, Linn said it will join a prestigious traveling exhibit next year.
“I got an email even before the crate containing French’s collar had been unpacked,” Linn said. The curator of an exhibition on contemporary Native American fashion had seen the piece on social media and wondered if she could borrow it for a traveling exhibit called Native Fashion Now, which will run from November 2015 until March 2016.
That French’s collar will be among these 100 pieces sends a strong message about the innovative work of Alaska Native artists, Linn said. “Chloe’s collar is fantastic and will be appreciated simply for its aesthetic qualities. The history and culture that are embedded in the symbolism is what makes it a museum piece.”