Friday, June 25, 2010

The Art of a Place

I do not claim expert knowledge of Northwest Coast Native Design, but I have been shaped by this rich, abstract expression of cultural strength and identity. This is the story of how living in Alaska brought awareness, which grew into appreciation, and lead to a strong respect for the wonders of form-line design.

My class Project Plan:
I've attached a brief video as an example of easily accessed form-line design in our community. Students could collect a set of examples, via digital camera, and arrange their images in a slide-show according to some element or theme they notice. As a class, we will share discoveries, then formulate and discuss some of the questions posed in my video. Students will research via books, museums and community interviews to help them analyze form-line design and begin to answer their questions. Ultimately, students should identify a local artist they respect and attempt to duplicate an existing design in a carved linoleum block. We will press these into clay slabs and fire them as boxes, or mugs, to preserve our personal homages. Students will title these studies with the name of their chosen artist/mentor. Student will share specifically what they learned about the elements and influences in form-line design and be able to express, verbally and in writing, what they admire in local form-line design.

As a child growing up in Anchorage, Alaska, I identified Eskimo versus Indian culture through plastic dolls with black braided hair: One wore a fur parka, the other a beaded leather frock. What little I knew of totems was gleaned from made-in-china plastic poles sold in 4th Ave gift shops.

My mother's dental office got a contract to bring services to the bush. Soon, my sister and I each had Inuit-made seal-skin teddy bears and hand-sewn cotton kuspuks. Our home was decorated with polarbear-fur dance fans, Aleut grass baskets, and Cupik leather dolls made by exotic artists from remote villages. I wondered at 3x5 photos of windswept snow drifts and dark smiling faces of children from a faraway land - a land we somehow shared under the name, "Alaska." I knew my mother's experiences were special.

Moved by the study of social linguistics and anthropology in college, I realized her opportunities were more than special. My mother caught a fleeting moment in time - She saw a culture in transition that would never look the same again - A culture forever changed by western culture and technological domination. It was about this time I learned the popular ivory carved bilikin wasn't an original Native Alaskan design concept, and that my "self-education" was limited to commercial access. I began to see that Alaska Native arts varied beyond the question of Eskimo vs. Indian and were influenced by marketing demands.

I took a summer job at the Nulagvik Hotel in Kotzebue; I worked Bristol Bay fisheries a few summers in a row. I enjoyed the rhythms and flow of Unangan and Yupik, and fancied I could identify some of the differences between Yupik and Inupiaq. Some of those windswept drifts and smiling faces from my mother's photos came into focus in my own life experience - They weren't always smiling, but their lives were rich and mysterious. I began to see, the Arts of these communities are living, breathing, and changing, with time and place. They are influenced, not just by specific cultures and resources, but by diverse individuals, their movements, their interests and their resourcefulness.

Later, I worked as a tour guide throughout Alaska and the Yukon. I eventually earned my Art teaching degree. I've marched far and wide across the State, in search of the "most authentic sources" of "true native" arts and crafts.

And I fell in love with the Northwest Coast Native Design of Southeast Alaska.

I studied the convenient information available at gift shops and museums, working to discern differences in line quality, shape and style. As I came to recognize Reg Davidson from Marvin Oliver, Wayne Price over Philip Janze, I even came to think of myself as a bit of a connoisuer of the strong graphic form-line design in Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian territory. But, like so many other things in life - The more you learn, the more you know you don't know!

For Info on Marvin Oliver: Marvin Oliver's web site
For Info on Reg Davidson: Reg Davidson's web site
For Info on Philip Janze: this gallery
For info on Wayne Price: Wayne Price's web site

I longed to share what I was discovering! "Why weren't there teaching materials to help artists and teachers study the intricacies and stylistic trends of this fascinating abstract design system?" I determined I would design a fool-proof manipulatives kit!

I drew out my first ovoids and u-forms and I began to cut out my "templates".... "OOOOoooohhhh..." Nothing teaches better than doing. Form-line design is created to fit in particular spaces. It is impossible to achieve that satisfying interdependent balance so particular to form-line design with pre-fabricated templates - My idea was a flop. It was not so simple...

When I found Karin Clark and Jim Gilbert's "Learning by Doing" (Raven Publishing, Union Bay BC, 1993), I thought I found the tools I craved! But when I married a Juneau man and moved to the land of form-line design, I heard local artists and educators bemoan the "bad ovoids" and "lack of tension" in this resource. Later, the same duo published "Learning by Designing, Vol. 1 and 2." In it, they honor the cultural beliefs and influences behind the styles, as well as illustrate and explain some of the shape and line tendencies as they differ from the "North Coast" (Tlingit and Haida), "Mid Coast" (Kwakwaka'wakw), "West Coast" (Nuu-Chah-Nulth and Makah), and "South Coast" (Coast Salish) styles. Their books are a tremendous collection of work!

Yet somehow, most Juneau artists seem to feel they "miss the mark." Bill Holm's "Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form" (Burke Museum, 1965) and Hilary Stewart's 1979 "Looking at Indian Art of the Northwest Coast" are the preferred references for many Juneau form-line fanatics.

Moving to the "source" location has allowed me to expand my understanding of form-line design in ways I could never have imagined. The complexity of issues like propriety and clan ownership require frequent formal and informal exchanges with different artists and community experts. Excellent examples of work for comparison and analysis of different eras and sources are around every corner:

Examples of local easily accessed form-line design for study;
- Local Juneau business logo

- 6th street public sculpture

Gallery wares in downtown shops

Every time I visit the State Museum in Juneau I see new things in the now familiar exhibits on form-line design. I often take notes in the form of sketching what I see...

And sometimes I explore my own form-line abilities, now that I'm more familiar with the particular shapes, angles, and curves...

I was so fortunate to get Ray Watkin's help with my work on the Gastineau School gym design.
I look forward to more opportunities to work with experienced form-line artists.

Local Experts are often willing to guide one who asks respectfully for help.
Other novice artists are often a huge inspiration!

Taking the time, to explore the Place, over time, living and working directly with the source of the artwork - the people - influences me and my work, indelibly. I am marked by what Raven sees.

Klawok High School
student's transformation mask - Haines Art Fest 2010

(My "Devil Fish"sketch on a napkin during lectures in the Place-Based Institute, June 8-9, 2010:).