Tlingit glass artist Preston Singletary laughs as the glass screen he created is unveiled inside the Walter Soboleff Building clan house.
Tsimshian carver David A. Boxley, fourth from right in line of drummers, drums and sings in front of the clan house screen he created for the Walter Soboleff Building in Juneau during hte screen's dedication ceremony May 15.
Story last updated at 5/20/2015 - 9:47 am
The three art pieces created for the Water Soboleff Building were described by Sealaska Heritage Institute as "monumental," an adjective that applies not only to their size -- all three are believed to be the biggest of their kind in the world -- but to their significance and stature: each one represents a major new work by an internationally recognized master artist and is an important addition to Juneau's artistic landscape.
More than art pieces for the cultures they represent (see related story below), the works are an integral and permanent part of the new arts and cultural center, and are reflective of the center's dual goal of honoring tradition while supporting Northwest Coast Native art's continuing evolution. Two of the pieces use unusual mediums -- one metal, one glass -- and abstract designs, while the third is based on historical examples of formline and is rendered in cedar, a traditional material.
During Friday's opening, two of three pieces were shown publicly for the first time: Tlingit artist Preston Singletary's glass clan house screen and Tsimshian artist David Boxley's carved and painted clan house front. Haida artist Robert Davidson's metal exterior panels have been visible on the outside of the building since they were installed late last month.
The unveiling of Singletary's and Boxley's pieces took place during a part of the traditional ceremony conducted inside the building, and were welcomed with dancing, singing and oratory in Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian. Singletary's clan screen, which stands at the back wall of the building's interior clan house, was unveiled first. The 17-by-12 foot screen shows a stylized Northwest Coast design and is made of amber and black sandblasted glass, the medium for which Singletary is best known. Two house posts, depicting a raven and an eagle, will eventually be installed on either side of the screen.
In making brief comments during the clan house ceremony, Singletary spoke of learning about his Tlingit heritage from his great grandmother, who was from Sitka. Singletary, who lives in Seattle and was not raised in Alaska, said he was honored and humbled to bring his work back to the community.
"I've come full circle," he said. "My great grandmother was alive until she was 100, so we had her in our lives. She always told us about where she came from, where we came from, and so this is definitely the biggest and the most important piece I've done to date."
Singletary learned how to work with glass in Seattle before traveling to Venice and Sweden to learn from European masters. In the late 1980s, he began experimenting with incorporating his heritage into his designs, and is now known worldwide for his unusual blend of traditionally based designs and modern medium. His work is held in museum collections including The British Museum in London, The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, The Seattle Art Museum, the Heard Museum in Phoenix, and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
In thanking Singletary for his work, Deisheetaan clan member Joe Zuboff said the unusual medium is also significant for its permanence, which he linked to the renewed strength of Native culture in the area.
"It wasn't that long ago, ... it felt like we were going to go into the mouth of the sea monster," Zuboff said. "... Today our grandchildren are going to come to this place and look at this screen, this building .. and this is going to be where they learn about our ancestors, who are with us today."
Following the unveiling of the glass screen, the assembled guests moved out to the foyer of the building to see David Boxley's carved and painted clan house front, which is visible through the glass at the building's main entrance. The huge screen, 40 feet wide by 15 feet high, is based on historical examples, Boxley said, and tells the story of "Am'ala: Wil Mangaa da Ha'lidzogat" ("The Man who Held up the Earth"). It is made from 43 separate boards that the Boxleys worked on five at a time.
"We tried really hard to make it look like it had just been transported here out of the 1800s," Boxley said. "We studied old pieces and looked at how they were put together."
Boxley recognized the contributions of his son, David Jr., in creating the piece with him.
"My name is on this house front but his name is just as much on it," he said. "As we were working on it ... we'd look at each other and say, 'Wow, this is once in a lifetime.' We know that and our hearts are full."
The central figure of the design represents Am'ala, a supernatural figure who also stands for the land. Around him the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people are represented by smaller individual figures. On the right and left sides of the central image are the four separate clan symbols of the Tsimshian, each with a secondary figure in its eye: killer whale with grizzly bear, raven with frog, eagle with beaver, and wolf with black bear.
Boxley Jr. said it was an amazing experience to contribute to the building on behalf of the Tsimshian people.
"It absolutely means the world to us that we can represent the people of Metlakatla," Boxley Jr. said.
Boxley Sr. was raised by his grandparents, from whom he learned traditional Tsimshian ways including the language. He became a full time artist in the mid-1980s, after studying historical examples of carvings and other work in museums and libraries. His work can be seen at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. and the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, among other places, and is held in the private collections of dignitaries including the king and queen of Sweden, the emperor of Japan, the president of West Germany and the mayor of Chongging in China.
The third monumental work is the huge exterior panels created by Robert Davidson. They were created out of metal according to a recommendation by SHI's Native Artist Committee to ensure their longevity in Southeast's wet climate. (The committee currently includes master Tlingit artist Nathan Jackson, master Haida weaver Delores Churchill, Tlingit contemporary artist Nicholas Galanin, formline expert Steve Brown, and artist Da-ka-xeen Mehner -- all of whom were at the opening Friday.)
Davidson was born in Hydaburg and grew up in Massett, Haida Gwaii, in British Columbia. The great grandson of Haida artist Charles Edenshaw and an apprentice of Bill Reid, Davidson made the first totem pole in Massett in nearly 90 years in 1969, when he was 22. His paintings, sculptures and carvings have been exhibited at the Seattle Art Museum and Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in New York and can be seen in collections including the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, the Vancouver Art Gallery, and the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles.
The Soboleff Building panels are based on his painting, "Greatest Echo," which was sold at the Tinaa Art Auction, a fundraiser for the Soboleff building held Feb. 1 in Juneau. The large red-and-black painting, an abstract design that incorporates elements of traditional formline, is called "Greatest Echo" because "Dr. Soboleff echoed the past to bring it to the present," according to SHI.
During Friday's ceremony, Worl thanked the artists for their work, saying her dream of securing the top master artists representing all three cultural groups had come true. She also thanked other artists who contributed to the building including Steve Brown, who designed the glass awnings that reflect formline design onto the sidewalk below, and Wayne Price, who adzed the boards that make up the building's interior, making more than 1 million adze marks, as well as architect Paul Voelkers, of Juneau-based firm MRV Architects, who designed the building with SHI, and Pete Dawson of Dawson Construction, who built it.
To read more about these artists, see prestonsingletary.com, www.davidboxley.com and www.robertdavidson.ca.