Story last updated at 5/20/2015 - 12:00 pm
Northwest Coast Native art isn't the only focus of the new Walter Soboleff Building, but it's likely to be the aspect that draws in the most visitors. For non-Natives hoping to gain a better understanding of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures, the artwork is a good place to start, offering an introduction to foundational concepts such as balance and harmony.
Traditionally, art was such an integral part of the culture that there was no word for it in the Tlingit vocabulary, said SHI president Rosita Worl in a recent interview.
"What we would call art, it would be in Tlingit 'at.oow,' an owned or purchased thing, it's a clan treasure," she said. "It's related to our social organization and reflects our spiritual beliefs ... it speaks to the relationship that we have to the environment, the relationship that we have to animals. But that is not to say we don't appreciate good art ... Even in the traditional periods, they knew what was good work."
One of the reasons SHI has emphasized the arts so strongly in its work throughout the region is because of that strong connection between the physical work created and the underlying ideas and values of the culture; in supporting one, you support the other.
"We've tried to bring a lot of focus to the arts because it is a very overt manifestation of our culture," Worl said. "We initially focused on language, just because of the endangered state of our languages, but our next priority became arts."
SHI also felt a sense of urgency in implementing its goals; it wasn't that long ago that many of the traditional art forms were in danger of being lost, Worl said. For example, spruce root basketry might have disappeared completely if not for the teachings of one woman, master artist Delores Churchill, a Haida weaver from Ketchikan, whom SHI asked to lead workshops throughout the region.
"We went through a period where we had one or two Tlingit spruce-root basket weavers," she said. "Now today we have more than 20 and those 20 are teaching the young. We could go through a lot of the different art forms -- even totem poles almost disappeared because the system of learning about doing totem poles was lost, the master apprentice teaching method."
Now apprenticeship is once again valued as an important part of the process, she said, citing the example of the recent Gajaa Hit totem poles that were raised in downtown Juneau last year.
Chilkat weaving was also dangerously close to dying out. According to the Sheldon Museum, George Emmons reported 15 remaining weavers in 1907. If not for master weaver Jennie Thlunaut of Klukwan, one of the last of the traditional weavers who led a workshop in Haines before she died, many of the techniques might have been lost. Thlunaut's work is now carried on through Chilkat weaver Clarissa Rizal and others. (One of Rizal's robes was worn by Tlingit artist Preston Singletary during the Soboleff Building opening.)
Another element of Northwest Coast art and culture that was threatened was formline itself - the basic design elements around which most of the art is built. The term was coined by Bill Holm - a highly regarded Northwest Coast Native art scholar who was also present at the Soboleff Building opening. There are strict rules in how designs are approached and carried out, and those standards were beginning to weaken, Worl said.
"We held a juried art show, I don't know how many years ago, and the master artist at that time was Robert Davidson and he said 'Rosita, our art is deteriorating.' And I got all hysterical, 'Oh my god, I'm going to go down to the Sante Fe American Indian Arts Institute and get them to start working on it!'
"He said "No, no, you have to go into the villages and you have to start teaching basic formline.'" So that's what we've been doing, we've been going up and down the coast and even up to Anchorage to teach formline. You have to master those formlines before you can start changing it."
Haida artist Davidson is one of three artists who created major art pieces for the Soboleff building, along with Singletary and Tsimshian artist David Boxley. David Boxley's son, David Jr., who worked the building's clan house screen with his father, said during last year's SHI juried art show that formline's emphasis on harmony and balance is reflected in the philosophies and values of his culture.
"Formline is a perfect visual representation and an analogy for our culture," Boxley said. "The black and red, the balance between sizes, the flow of thin to thick to thin, the positive and negative space - the entire system is about balance. It's beautiful."
The archeological history of Northwest Coast art and the formline style, described as "one of the most extraordinary art traditions in Native America" by Museum of the North director Aldona Jonaitis, is difficult to trace, given the wet climate of the region and use of biodegradable materials such as wood. Worl, who holds a Ph.D. and a M.S. in anthropology from Harvard University, said available evidence indicates it extends back thousands of years.
"We ourselves will say, we as Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people will say, 'since time immemorial,' and so we have no reference to the actual time. To us, we've been here forever. But we know from archeological work, you can see from the archeological evidence, that it's dated back to at least four thousand years."
Indigenous peoples have been living in Southeast Alaska for more then 10,000 years, she added.
Worl said the record would be much easier to study if stone was the predominant material, as those artifacts would have been preserved over time.
Now, with the opening of the Soboleff Building, artists have many more resources for learning about their traditions. In addition to the permanent art pieces created by Davidson, Boxley and Singletary, there is an on-site archives facility, an artist-in-residence space, and a classroom, as well as a gallery with clan objects.
Worl, who said she's learned a lot from visits to Sante Fe, New Mexico, where art is a central focus of the city, said she believes art is a bridge between cultures.
"It's a good cross cultural exercise because you've got people who appreciate their arts," she said. "I think it enhances relationships among people."