Museum

Combining science and art in symmetry

The “Ice Walker” robe by Teri Rofkar was woven using the traditional Raven’s Tail technique. It is on display in the Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery at the UA Museum of the North. UAMN photo
The “Ice Walker” robe by Teri Rofkar was woven using the traditional Raven’s Tail technique. It is on display in the Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery at the UA Museum of the North. UAMN photo

Imagine a robe woven from materials found in the place you’ve lived all your life, the place your ancestors also called home. You have learned about this place from their stories passed down over thousands of years but also in the many discoveries made on journeys of your own.

What would you notice first?

Maybe the materials, collected from the forests where spruce and cedar trees grow and from mountain goats whose wool can be used for a variety of clothing, including this robe. Or it might be the colors, created from the plants and minerals of a Southeast Alaska rainforest.

Or you might notice the patterns, intricate repetitions that at first glance are pleasing but on further reflection tell their own stories.

This particular robe was made by Teri Rofkar, a Tlingit of the Raven Clan from the Snail House. It is one of many objects on display at the University of Alaska Museum of the North created by the descendants of the state’s traditional cultures.

Rofkar has been weaving baskets and textiles for decades. She learned from her grandmother the traditional Raven’s Tail freehand technique that dates back more than 6,000 years. She is inspired by a deep connection to her culture and has spent many hours looking through Tlingit collections at museums around the world, investigating baskets and other items carved, sewn and woven by her ancestors. “Those are my mentors,” she said.

That is how she knows, after years of reflection and research, that there was no difference between science and art in the Tlingit culture. Her people were investigating all the time. They had to be in tune with the world in order to survive.

In this particular robe, Rofkar used repeating patterns and modern motifs to represent polar bears. The colors include yellows and whites with a pale blue thread to show the tracks of  the “Ice Walkers,” which represent the footprints of the bear filling up with ocean water.

“It took me forever to get my colors exactly right. It turns out polar bears are not white! I used off-white and cream for the polar bears and bleached white wool for the ice.”

 
The Raven’s Tail robe created by Teri Rofkar for the University of Alaska Museum of the North was “danced” at the UAF Festival of Native Arts in March 2015. Photo by Allison Akootchook Warden
The Raven’s Tail robe created by Teri Rofkar for the University of Alaska Museum of the North was “danced” at the UAF Festival of Native Arts in March 2015. Photo by Allison Akootchook Warden
 
The traditional formline designs of Northwest Coast cultures can be seen in this Chilkat robe from the UA Museum of the North’s collections. UAMN photo
The traditional formline designs of Northwest Coast cultures can be seen in this Chilkat robe from the UA Museum of the North’s collections. UAMN photo

Many of the objects in the museum's collection use symmetry to explore the intersection of art, math and science. People and most multicellular organisms have symmetrical body plans. Symmetry helps connect mathematical concepts to the real world. Noticing patterns is a basic concept of geometry. Symmetry is also appealing, inherently beautiful to the human eye. It is a symbol of balance and harmony.

Educator Gabrielle Vance said Alaska Native masks are a prime example of an art form where symmetry and asymmetry are integral. “The museum is a good place to explore an abstract concept like symmetry because we have so many concrete examples of it, from bilaterally symmetrical butterflies to tessellations on parka trim.

“People can discover symmetry in the museum using a symmetry finder like the one we have in the Family Room. It’s a small straight stick that they can hold up to objects and pictures to check for lines of symmetry.”

If you explore the galleries in this way, you are sure to discover another example of symmetrical traditional weaving, a Chilkat robe. These were worn during ceremonial occasions, such as potlatches, and made from mountain goat wool and shredded cedar bark with a twining technique.

The designs feature a curving line that forms the outline of a subject along with additional lines that represent eyes, noses and mouths, in addition to decorative patterns. The lines are often black and red. And they are usually symmetrical.

Formline figures are a familiar pattern found elsewhere in cultures of the people of the Northwest Coast, from totem poles to decorative house panels, baskets to beading. The designs are featured on traditional clothing used for ceremonies and the bentwood boxes used for storage and cooking.

Traditionally, the designs were copied by women weavers from a  pattern board painted by a man featuring an intricate array of faces and profiles. The weavers would copy the pattern and then create the inverse, ending up with an entirely symmetrical design which matched completely when folded in half. The Chilkat robe on display in the Southeast Alaska section of the Gallery of Alaska is an example of this Tlingit tradition from the 19th century.

Rofkar said symmetry is a central theme of her work, as both a mathematical term and a reflection of social values. “It’s got metaphors that are appropriate for life and also for retaining the imagery of life. To me, I’m not just recording the past. I’m recording life.”

“With symmetry, art is the fulcrum. It represents the symmetry reflected in both the future and the past. We are the fulcrum.”

 
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