Blog of Robert Davis Hoffmann on

Work: Downtime is a Misnomer

Village Boy Book Cover Art

I work a seasonal position at the Sheldon Jackson Museum (SJM), May 1 - September 30. I thought that would be ideal for getting lots and lots of artwork done. Not quite that easy!

I co-teach 3 classes with the Rural Human Services (RHS) Program in Anchorage and Fairbanks, a program that helped me get certified as a Chemical Dependency Counselor. Although the Bill Brady Healing Center closed, where I was a counselor for 5 years, I keep my CDCI certification, and I stay involved with the RHS Program.

Sheldon Jackson Museum is one of the places for inspiration for art. Believe me, I have enough ideas to carry me into the next decade! I have drawers of sketches!

This year I thought I'd do some "professional development" in spite of feeling silly for taking 100 level art at age 61. It's frustrating to have concepts, and to lack skills to exectute them. So I signed up for Norm Campbells Drawing class at the University of Alaska Southeast. It's a treat to myself. Norm Campbell is a great artist, and a wonderful and patient teacher. Check out Norm Campbell Art on Facebook.

I try to keep in the practice of writing. I have poems in various stages of completion, from jotted notes, to scribbled phrases, to rough drafts. I have journals, notebooks, and loose pages. I have poems on my computer, and poems in my head. Just like my drawer of sketches, I need time to do something with these! So I decided to do a one-month residency at Centrum in Port Townsend. I'll be there mid-January to mid-February devoting time to completing this manuscript of poems, and to work on another illustrated manuscript. More to be revealed...

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Art, Culture, and Living in Two Worlds

Tlingit Art Culture and Identity article

That line between two worlds is becoming blurred in the sense that we Natives live in the global, modern, technological, achievement-oriented 21st century world. On the other hand, we are responsible for defining and determining our cultural identity, traditions, meanings, lifestyles. Part of it is maintaining core parts of our culture, while choosing which parts we continually redefine. For example, our language is something that needs to be kept alive by using it as accurately as it has always been used, whereas some traditions and ceremonies evolve, but others are kept as close to the old way of doing things as possible. While there are many authorities and scholars on Tlingit culture, we are the ones who attribute meaning. We are the ones who create our own context. We create our own identity.

When I was younger, I struggled with my cultural identity. My father was Tlingit and my mother White. Belonging to two ethnicities conflicted me and kept me feeling like an outsider wherever I was. I had to learn to integrate what felt like a schism. The process was long, and the path to where I am today was quite rocky. I am a product of both worlds. As a young artist and writer, this conflict came out pointedly. In SoulCatcher (1986, Ravens Bones Press, Sitka) a themes of built-in inaccuracy, sarcasm, blame and discontentedness runs through that early collection. That was basically my internal state.

As an artist, I wanted to learn how to become a traditional artist, but I was also trying to market my work. Another conflict! Here's one of those early poems:

The Albino Tlingit Carving Factory

We do not take the time hunting
for the perfect grained red cedar
to split planks from with wedge and stone maul.
We do not talk to the trees.
We do not hew and adze
and season our boards. No.
They come from Spenard Building Supply
on Katlian Street
at $2.15 per board foot.

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NW Coast Formline and Printmaking


I've stated before my love of teaching our Tlingit formline design. I teach about the uses of our art as clan crests. I teach about the basic rules in order to start designing within this art style. I try to make it interesting, meaningful and fun.

So I was thrilled when Tara Alcock, the Petersburg Borough Librarian, contacted me in September to see if I would teach a workshop at the new Petersburg Public Library! It's a beautiful building inside and out, and I was eager to see it. Take a look. I was pleased to see all the artwork installed. Art belongs in public places. The library has a very inviting and cozy feeling to it. My brother and I got a guided tour from our cousin Ross Nannauck (Ross on Facebook) and he has a paddle that's part of the permanent collection there.

As soon as I knew I was definately going to Petersburg, I wanted to make the one day workshop into a little more than just design. I had been wanting to teach printmaking as part of a formline class, and this was the perfect opportunity, especially when the Petersburg Library was in a position to purchase some beginner block-printing kits from Dick Blick. They're really good about publicizing events in Petersburg and even a few weeks prior, I was interviewed over the phone and the Petersburg Press ran an article on the workshop.

My wife and I learned some really simple, cheap and fun techniques during Sitka Fine Arts Camp when they had their summer camp instructors teach evening classes for adults. That was the greatest idea, whoever came up with that. It allows community members to also learn (and have fun) from their camp instructors. When we saw Printmaking being offered for adults, we jumped at the opportunity. Jessica Krichels was the instructor. I have to say, after a long day with the kids, she tolerated us adult kids really well. Here's some of Jessica's prints.

Teaching in Kake

In addition to my Petersburg trip being a good opportunity to add printmaking to a Tlingit formline class, I turned it into a short side trip to my hometown, Kake. Kake has been called the "banana belt" of southeast Alaska because of its micro-climate. It's not only got some of the most breath-taking scenery, it is slower paced and quieter. I find it much easier to get back to nature in small villages. I am fed by the things that fed my own ancestors. Our art comes from that taproot.

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Village Boy - Poem

Kake, Alaska

When my parents, Henry and Claribel Davis both accepted teaching jobs in Juneau in 1970 it was a dramatic shift for a "village boy." Back then it was culture shock for me. It wasn't easy. I listened to and took to heart comments about small town Natives that I should have shirked off. But young people don't have that ability. Not at a time when one is trying to establish who they are so they can figure out where they want to go in life.

It was a confusing time of life, being half Tlingit and half White compounded it. I was depressed, isolated and contemplating suicide. But today I am glad I did have to struggle through those difficulties, the comments, the lack of direction, the sorting out of identity. If things weren't as difficult, I would not have some of the clarity I gained from those experiences.

Through the struggles there were a few things that acted as "anchors" for me:

  1. HOME. Kake. That is the place of my childhood and my coming of age. Even when I went off to college when I got homesick I would visit the places around Kake in my mind. Among us Tlingit, PLACE is so important. For me, PLACE has become interwoven with HOME. I know where I come from.
  2. ART. Our formline art has been my true love for many years. I began copying designs from my father's many books when I was in 4th grade. It has been my escape, my salvation, my freedom. During my difficult high school days, I drew a lot. I wanted to quit school, but there were two classes that made me return to school every day: Tlingit class with Cecelia Kunz, and Carving class with Peter Bibb. I am indebted.

The way our culture and our art get passed on is that it comes with some responsibilty. But those responsibilties also become rewards in themself. I was teaching at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp one year, and as it turned out, I would be teaching the grandchildren of my high school Carving teacher, Mr. Bibb! That inspired me to write this poem.

Village Boy 

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Topsy (Charles Johnson) Poem: Reconstruction

Topsy Saginaw Bay Tsaagweidi Tlingit

Last time I was in Kake, I read some poems at a community talent show, and I had told my sisters I would read my "Topsy poem" but once I was limited on time so I read shorter works.

So here is the poem I didn't get to read:


(For Uncle Topsy, Shaayaxdu.eesh - Tsaagweidi)

I thought my life was in layers

like a complex Chilkat Blanket's warps and wefts;

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© Robert Davis Hoffmann

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