PUBLISHED: 3:52 PM on Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Juneau artist wins national award, brings classic tradition to contemporary art world

Courtesy photo
  Anna Brown Ehlers explains the design on a Chilkat blanket she made as a memorial to her late twin sister.
In December, a stranded Anna Brown Ehlers faced a tough decision: which awards ceremony would she attend. An event at Lincoln Center for United States Artists or a First Peoples Fund function in Rapid City, S.D. Both organizations were giving her an award for her artistic contributions and she had planned to be present at the two celebrations, but Juneau's weather failed to cooperate. She sat on the tarmac too long in the capital city and missed connecting flights.

"I called the First Peoples Fund and said I had a ceremony in New York and it would be hard for me to get to both. They told me, go to New York," she said.

When the weather cleared, she headed to the East Coast.

Ehlers is a Chilkat blanket weaver. She's demonstrated her work in Asia and throughout the United States, in Tokyo and Los Angeles, at the Smithsonian Institution and the Seattle Art Museum.

Her blankets are in the permanent collections of the Juneau-Douglas City Museum and the Alaska State Museum. This spring, she said her work will be featured in a special exhibit at the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

"Anna's one of the most accomplished Chilkat weavers of modern times," said her apprentice Robert Corbisier, who has been studying under the Tlingit weaver since 2003.

When she finally arrived in New York late last year, Ehlers accepted the United States Artists Fellowship, a new program designed to "nurture, support and strengthen the work of America's finest living artists." The program distributed $2.7 million in unrestricted grants to artists working in areas from music composition to comics journalism to the visual arts. Among the 54 artists receiving $50,000 were Matthew Stadler, a novelist from Oregon; Basil Twist, a puppeteer in New York; Fairbanks musician John Luther Adams and Sitka weaver Teri Rofkar also were winners.

Courtesy photo
  A commissioned Raven Chilkat Blanket, now in Angoon, worn by Anna Brown Ehlers.
Winners were selected from among 300 artists nominated by cultural and arts figures from across the country. United States Artists, which is based in Los Angeles, was created with $20 million from four foundations - Ford, Rockefeller, Prudential and Rasmuson Foundation of Anchorage.

Ehlers spent last summer traveling around Alaska with ArtTrain USA.

Its five rail cars carried Native American artwork and made stops in Anchorage, Palmer, Seward and other cities.

"I know the art world treasures Anna's work for aesthetic reasons, but for Tlingit people, and I think this is why Anna is so significant, she continues to make Chilkat blankets and robes for ceremonial use," said Rosita Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau. For a special naming ceremony for her granddaughter, Worl used a blanket woven by Ehlers. Sealaska also holds work by the artist in its collection.

Ehlers is a Tlingit Indian of the Raven moiety, Woodworm clan the Whale House of Klukwan, Alaska, like her mother. Her father was an Eagle-Killerwhale from the Killerwhale Fin house of Klukwan, which is near Haines. Her ancestral village is in the heart of the Chilkat Valley.

Ehlers was born and raised in Juneau, and comes from a family of artists. Her brother is established carver Nathan Jackson as are her cousins, Mick and Rick Beasley.

"It's such a big family, we've got carvers, spinners, weavers, painters," she said.

As a child Ehlers used to string beads to be used on moccasins that her grandfather would sell to supplement the family's income.

"I couldn't go out of the house until my beading was finished," she said.

She said she knew she wanted to weave Chilkat blankets as a young child, but didn't start until she was in her 20s. Chilkat blankets are actually robes, used in ceremonies. Traditionally they're made of cedar bark and mountain goat wool and framed in fringe. The designs are a two-dimensional depiction of totemic carving.

"In the woven design body parts of animal figures are rearranged to fill the space of the weaving. The symbols incorporated into the designs have important significance for those who understand their meaning," according to Tlingit & Haida magazine (January, 1994). The weaver can choose from the traditional shapes, but strict rules apply when creating the designs. And in Chilkat tradition, a male usually creates the blanket's design. "My uncle Roy Brown wore a Chilkat blanket in the fourth of July parade. It was the year of statehood and I was just entranced, seeing fringe move," she said.

Fast-forward almost two decades, when Ehlers started weaving with her sister in law, an accomplished Chilkat artisan. Then she apprenticed with Klukwan master weaver Jenny Thlaunaut. The 92-year-old weaver was among the most prolific makers of the art form, creating more than 75 works before her death in 1986. Under Thlaunaut's tutelage, Ehlers crafted her first tunic. It's now in the permanent collection of the Alaska State Museum.

During a brief stop at her home and studio in the Mendenhall Valley in December, Ehlers talked about creating work in the traditional Tlingit fashion with contemporary flourishes. She weaves Chilkat blankets of cedar and wool, but includes modern touches, such as gold thread woven through their totemic designs. She says designs for the blankets come from her brother Nathan Jackson and well-known Seattle carver, Steve Brown.

In her studio, a large wooden loom almost runs the length of the room and is at least six feet tall. At the frame's top, she's started working on a blanket for a private client. She says it's her 13th big blanket. She explains it can take a year and a half or more to finish a large work.

"It's hard to tell how long it really takes to finish a blanket because the preparation time is so long," she said.

Preparation includes taking strips of cedar bark from trees and turning it into "warp" which forms the inner core of the fiber that makes up the weavings. She says springtime's when she collects the cedar, often in Sitka two weeks after the heron spawn. The cedar is combined with wool from mountain goats to make a strong yarn.

Ehlers said last year she spent most of her time on the road, demonstrating her work. She said it's important to pass the craft on to others. She's taught in Juneau public schools, in Sitka, Ketchikan and the University of Alaska system to name a few.

"I've finished blankets in hotel rooms on trains and cruise ships," she said.