Ae
Long, long before Juneau carpenter and artist David Walker began steaming sheets of veneer into incredible one-of-a-kind works of wearable art to present on Juneau’s runways, wearable art of a very different kind has been flourishing in Southeast Alaska: Tlingit armor, masks, jewelry and regalia.
Wearable Art of Place: Armor and Masks 021115 AE 1 CAPITAL CITY WEEKLY Long, long before Juneau carpenter and artist David Walker began steaming sheets of veneer into incredible one-of-a-kind works of wearable art to present on Juneau’s runways, wearable art of a very different kind has been flourishing in Southeast Alaska: Tlingit armor, masks, jewelry and regalia.

CAPITAL CITY WEEKLY

Tlingit artist Mick Beasley prepares for his talk on “Wearable Art of Place” at the University of Alaska Southeast on Friday. Photo by Michael Penn


CAPITAL CITY WEEKLY

Most of the masks Beasley brought in were carved by him. Photo by Michael Penn


CAPITAL CITY WEEKLY

Alaska State Museum Curator of Collections Steve Henrikson speaks about armor worn by Southeast Alaska Natives. Henrikson has been studying armor since he was in college. Photo by Michael Penn.

Click Thumbnails to View
Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Story last updated at 2/11/2015 - 6:19 pm

Wearable Art of Place: Armor and Masks

Long, long before Juneau carpenter and artist David Walker began steaming sheets of veneer into incredible one-of-a-kind works of wearable art to present on Juneau’s runways, wearable art of a very different kind has been flourishing in Southeast Alaska: Tlingit armor, masks, jewelry and regalia.

This culturally significant wearable art is the focus of this year’s Art of Place lecture series, Wearable Art of Place, which kicked off Friday at University of Alaska Southeast and continues through April.

Friday’s session featured Alaska State Museum Curator of Collections Steve Henrikson, who presented Wearable Art of Place: Armor, and master carver Mick Beasley, who presented Wearable Art of Place: Masks. Together these two local experts provided an in-depth look at the artistry, functionality, history, and beauty of these traditional art forms.

Armor

Henrikson began his talk with a comment about how Tlingit armor is much more than art, incorporating Tlingit history and culture in ways that extend far beyond aesthetics.

“It’s the past, present and future all rolled together,” he said.

Traditional armor was made to serve a specific function, to adorn warriors and give them strength, both physical and spiritual. However, despite its sturdiness -- the wooden helmets, according to one (possibly exaggerated) account Henrikson read written by Alexander Baranov, proved themselves capable of fending off  bullets – Henrikson believes the cultural context in which armor was brought out was geared toward an avoidance of violence.

“I think the armor is a way to de-escalate warfare ... it allowed for various ceremonial activities to take place without inflicting damage,” he said, noting that most helmets that have survived show little evidence of battle damage.

Though Tlingit helmets are rare -- and Haida helmets even more so – Henrikson has been able to study existing examples at museums around the world, a passion he’s fed since he was in college. As an undergraduate, he was assigned a 10-page research paper based on an image in his art history textbook. He picked a Tlingit helmet and, decades later, he’s still doing his research.

Tlingit helmets most often depicted fierce animals, human faces, or something in-between. They were typically carved from wood -- up to 2 inches thick -- and were quite heavy. Embellishments could include copper, baleen, operculum shell, hide and whiskers – depending on the creature represented.

The armor itself was often created from thick hide – sometimes elk that was acquired through trade with Columbia River-area members of the Chinook tribe. Wooden slats were often used, inside or outside, to reinforce the hide.

So powerful were the elements of armor that putting them on outside of the context of battle is still today something that isn’t really acceptable, Henrikson said.

“You don’t wear it unless you’re serious,” he said.

In some cases, such as when an individual needs to be given the strength of a warrior, a helmet will be held in the air above the person’s head.

The state museum recently purchased a set of Tlingit armor created by Tlingit artist Tommy Joseph of Sitka, first shown at the museum in April 2013. The armor will be on permanent display when the museum reopens in April 2016.

Henrikson, who has been busy preparing exhibits for the new museum, is also currently working on a book on Tlingit armor.

Masks

Henrikson’s presentation was followed by Tlingit carver Mick Beasley’s talk on masks, an art form he practices himself along with jewelry making and totem pole carving.

Beasley said learning to carve a mask provides the foundation for all the other types of carving – including totems.

“The foundation is all in the mask. You can do anything when you get your mask down,” he said.

Beasley, who grew up in Juneau, pointed out some of the distinctive features of Tlingit formline for the audience: a continuous lip shape, eyelid lines, and a flat surface where the pupil should be, created over the round surface of he rest of the eye – a challenging aspect for the carver to master, he said. The outside corner of the eye is usually higher than the inside, he said, showing examples of his early work compared to his later work to illustrate his talk.

“They don’t all come out well, but you’ve just got to keep trying,” he said to the artists in the audience.

Beasley’s work can be seen all over town – at Capital Park, in the interior of Bartlett Hospital, at the entrance to Fred Meyer (two poles created by Beasley and his twin brother, Rick) and in the forests surrounding the Mount Roberts Tram, where Beasley has created “culturally modified trees” – essentially partial totems carved into the tree in such a way that the tree continues to live.

He also makes jewelry and works in metal; among the masks he showed was one cast in bronze.

The Art of Place series, now in its fifth season, was established by UAS professor Ernestine Hayes. As in previous years, the presentations by local experts cover aspects of Tlingit culture. The next presentation, on March 6, will be Wearable Art of Place: Jewelry, led by clan leader Ed Kunz, and Wearable Art of Place: At.oow and Koogeina, led by culture bearer Percy Kunz. The  free talks begin at 11 a.m. in the Glacier View Room.