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My Native Art: Regarding Obligations and Social Pressures


Native Art and Social Pressure

A few years back, a friend of mine proposed that native artists have a responsibility to give back to the art. His belief was that our cultural art form was not ours to begin with. He argued that it belongs to our ancestors. He insisted that we are borrowing the art, so we need to repay. His idea for repayment was specific: we should donate our native art for public places.

I took a position against his proposal almost immediately, with opinions of my own:

  • The artwork created using traditional art form(s) is the product of the individual. An artist owns his own work.
  • Native artists have few limitations or obligations.
  • There are no overlords
  • Artists already "pay back" in many ways.

An Artist Owns His Own Work

Using my own artwork as an example, I said that my ideas originate in my own mind. My finished works belong to me because I created them. My friend persisted with his argument that the art form came from our ancestors, so I don't own my work.

I recognize that our art comes from generations before. But even long ago, great artists got paid for their work. In effect, a transaction was necessary to complete proper ownership. A ceremony then increased the value and it put that art in clan ownership. The implication is that ownership transferred from the artist.

I can copyright my artwork if I need to protect it from unauthorized reproduction. An individual may claim ownership of his or her art as property.

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Creating Face Casts for Tlingit Art

Perseverence Theater Bear Helmet
Perseverence Theater Bear Helmet
Perseverence Theater Bear Helmet
Perseverence Theater Bear Helmet
Edna Davis Jackson sm
I Miss You
Killer Whale Cast self portrait Robert Davis Hoffmann

How I Got Interested in Face Casts

My interest in casting began when I was working on set design on "Tlingit Macbeth" with Perseverence Theater in 2005, a play written and directed by Anita Maynard-Losh. See on "Tlingit Macbeth" on Vimeo. Roblin Davis was making a cast of Ishmael Hope's face and I was intrigued.

But I didn't actually make any casts until some of the props were redesigned for the performance that took place at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in 2007. Here are some of the casts my wife and I created for the helmets:
For the helmets, I looked for ideas from the helmets that Tommy Joseph carved for his "Rainforest Warriors" exhibit. we built the main form off a construction hardhat, then used plaster to sculpt the various features. Working with Perseverence Theater as set designer really stretched my creativity in unexpected ways. Back to casting faces for masks.

Supplies and Possibilities for Face Casting

Once I watched the process of casting faces I had to try it myself. Many years ago my sister, Edna Davis-Jackson, was casting handmade paper into masks and incorporating them into mixed media pieces like the one shown here: "Kaa-Oosh and Coho Salmon." Edna taught me how to cast paper, using organic material from our local environs. So far, I've used mostly commercial pulp, mixing in various organic fibers. I use supplies for Smooth-On to create the face mold. Their website has great tutorials for Life Casting.

Face casts are so captivating, and a person can go so many directions with this. I've cast faces in a treatment center and also in a college setting; both in which the project was one of self-exploration. Some even decorated the inside of the mask! One thing: make sure the person won't PANIC when casting their face! I myself don't get claustrophobic, but sometimes you have to keep the person relaxed with soothing music and such.

A variety of materials can be used to decorate with, depending on what the cast is made of. Sometimes they're perfect left as they are, especially if you have interesting paper. Here are a couple self-portrait pieces I'm working on, trying to decide where to go with them in terms of embellishement or incorporation into a larger mixed media piece like I did with the first piece below.

Some of My Personal Face Casts, Finished and In-Process

This piece is titled, "I Miss You" is a statement about yearning for something one can't quite put his finger on. It's a self-portrait piece with the black diagonal line representing a killer whale dorsal fin (my clan uses the Killer Whale/Seal). The metal buttons in the eyes are intended to give an empty but intense look. The adhesive lettering is intended to give a scrapbook effect. The found pieces below represent a vandalized grave. The wire coil dangling from the mask attaches to nothing, my visual pun. The metal frame is welded steel, meant to suggest a funeral pyre.


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5 Things To Help Improve as an Artist in Northwest Coast Formline Design

Books on Northwest Coast Native Formline

Many people are drawn to our Northwest Coast Formline style, understandably. It's got a unique elegance.
For some, it's not enough to admire, they wish to learn how to create their own work in this style. If that's you, hopefully this post will be helpful.

Non-Natives should be aware that our clans have what is considered at'.oow (sacred clan emblems).
Please be respectful, and become more educated on the issue of cultural misappropriation.

1. Find a Mentor

Tlingit art has been handed down through an apprenticeship system. This is still the best way to learn. 
Apprenticeships are fun as well as rewarding, Check out Alaska Council on the Arts Grants to Individual Artists

2. Practice, Practice, Practice

Practice. Practice the basics, the formline elements: Ovoid, 'U' shapes, and their endless variations.
Save Your Work. Keep a sketch diary. Date your entries so you can look back on your progress.
Trace. There's nothing wrong with tracing; it helps you get used to drawing shapes correctly. Kinesthetic learning.

3. Build a Library


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Salmon Boy

Tlingit salmon spawn painting by Robert Davis Hoffmann
Tlingit Salmon Boy story by Robert Davis Hoffmann
Tlingit Salmon Boy painting by Robert Davis Hoffmann

The story of Salmon Boy is told as a lesson in proper relationship with the land and its resources, with the Animal Peoples and the sacrifice they make that man should have sustenance. An attitude of utmost respect is demanded, since our lives depended on the land's bounty.

As this story goes, one young boy and thrown away (or spat out) in disgust a moldy piece of fish. The Tlingit always understood that our respect toward the salmon guaranteed they would return again. The consequence of Salmon Boy's offensiveness was that he had to become a salmon, thus experiencing necessary sacrifice to become our food.

Salmon boy returned to the river by his village, where he was speared by his father. When his mother cut into him, her knife hit a copper neck ring she immediately recognized as the neck ring made for her son. She wrapped the body in cedar mat, and later the boy emerged as a shaman, who could commune with the Salmon People.

I've painted a couple versions of this story over the years. Here they are oldest to most recent:

Sealaska Heritage Institute put together a booklet (pdf) of the Tlingit Salmon Boy story, with translation, for children.

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Lifelong Learning

Eye sketch from Norm Cambell's Drawing class
Drop Cloth drawing from Norm Cambell's class
thumb IMG 0330

It's quite a busy Fall!

As I mentioned in yesterday's blog, I've been taking Drawing classes at the University of Alaska Southeast with Norm Campbell instructor. I've had to miss a few classes due to travel, but am learning and practicing the basics nonetheless. Here are a few samples:


I thought I had no skills at drawing real life, but I did surprised myself! What I'm hoping to take away from the Drawing classes are ways to shade or even reinterpret my existing Tlingit Formline designs.

Most of my life I've been a doodler. Restaurants that have crayons for children to draw on napkins have the right idea! I found I could pay closer attention if I drew while listening. Unfortunately, many teachers didn't agree.

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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 and Ego, or Please "Like" Me


Does inspiration for art come from some sacred place? Am I driven by my art, or is my art driven by me? In the latter, is that simply my ego suggesting that I should take credit for the source of my creation? And does that get in the way of true inspiration?

Can my ego be something positive that encourages creation?

For an artist to endure in spite of public criticism, ego can be a positive. Sometimes criticism makes me feel like my work isn’t good enough. Others times I believe I am the best judge of my own work and I shake off the criticism. In that sense, ego protects.

In the following, my ego gets in the way:

  1. The Criticism Trap
  2. The Stereotype Trap
  3. The Comparison Trap
  4. The Fame Trap
  5. The Spokesperson Trap

The Criticism Trap

I occasionally am contracted to create designs which require collaboration in the development of the design. There is a back-and-forth process before the final version is decided upon. The design comes together in stages and the contractor not only has input, he also has final decision, which may be very different from mine.

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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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Killer Whale Tsaagweidi Painting

killer whale

Killer Whale painting I did 10 years ago which the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage purchased for their collection.

Earlier this year, I began painting a little larger scale. I find myself putting in just as much detail as my smaller paintings though, as you can see in my latest, "Killer Whale / Tsaagweidi.

I'll just reiterate the description I have in the online store:

This painting has a lot of activity!  It represents a killer whale with a seal in the body; a theme in the Tsaagweidi clan crest. Tsaagweidi is the clan I belong to. The design shows a killer whale breaching, with water spouts represented by humanoid figures, and a face in the blowhole spouting.

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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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Tradition of Celebration

4 Core Values

I thought it would be appropriate to talk about the idea of celebration as part of our Tlingit culture, and as of 1982 the Sealaska Celebration has become a biennial tradition, "born of SHI's Board of Trustees' desire to celebrate and showcase Southeast Alaska Native traditions and customs" as explained on Sealaska Heritage Institute About Celebration webpage.

Celebration is a new tradition. Celebration is an occassion. It occurs every other even year. We celebrate our culture and our identity at this event. Out of large public displays such as SHI Celebration, perhaps the younger generation will learn that it is possible to celebrate our culture and identity frequently, daily even. Because culture is not separate from who we are or what we do daily. And identity is something we constantly redefine and reaffirm. Events such as Celebration are important in regard to reaffirmation.

I am looking forward to when I can attend Celebration; currently my seasonal schedule at the Sheldon Jackson Museum keeps me in Sitka during that time. I do have a dance staff that has never been danced. Being an artist, my favorite part of Celebration is the Artist Market. This year was the first Juried Art show I entered, and I was pleased that my painting, "Our Land" qualified for entry. Here's the press release on the 2014 Juried Art Show winners. Also on YouTube, David R. Boxley who had the difficult job of judging the entries, announcing the awards.

The piece I entered was titled "Haa Aani" (Our Land) which shows creatures representing Sky-Water-Land. acrylic on birch panel 30 x 24 x 1 5/8" done in traditional formline style. I got the idea from an earlier submission to SHI for the Walter Sobeloff Center which was to represent our 4 Core Values. You can see the value "Haa Aani" in the lower corner of the image on the below. Somehow the top of my image got clipped off, but you can see the where the inspiration came from.

Design is what I love to do. I'm getting close to retirement, and when I retire, design is ALL I'm going to do!

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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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Collaboration: Yours, Mine, Ours


After a day of painting I often see designs when I close my eyes. That's one way I get ideas for designs, by either looking at other art or by working on my own. ART BEGETS ART.

Sometimes people come to me with their ideas; they will have a basic idea of what they want me to create. Sometimes people will be more particular and they will ask me to make something a very specific way. When they aren't familiar with the artform, the constraints they come up with can be challenging. Nonetheless, I work within the constraints and for the most part the collaboration is successful.

The carving below is an example of an order I recieved. The concept was "Sun Kisses Laughter" and the idea developed, actually, as I began carving and letting the wood dictate what I'd come up with. While it would have been easy to make a traditional Tlingit "sun," I like where the project took me. I embedded pyrite pieces to represent "Laughter."

Collaborations can be a little more difficult. They create constraints. Every year I design a logo that represents National Recovery Month's theme for the year, and I do this in a Northwest Coast form line style. Septermber is National Recovery Month. Keep an eye out for this year's logo. This year's theme is "Join the Voices of Recovery: Reach Out. Speak Up.

Having a theme to design is just another way of designing within a box. Collaboration is really just about making that "box" as big a possible.

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Meaningfulness and Identity

Tsaagweidi NPS

When I create designs and either carve or paint them, I feel a deep connection not only with the art form and its older roots; I also feel connected to a sense of identity. How is this possible?

Sometimes my designs bear a resemblance to the old style most of my work is based on. An art that is based on the "Formline" style of the Pacific Northwest tribes - Tlingit, Haida, Tsimpshian - and which usually follows guidelines regarding its forms, elements, and color. I had to learn this older style in order to build from it my more personal and experiential designs. I nearly used the word "experimental" rather than "experiential" but the latter fit better, and describes more closely my thoughts and feelings associated with my design process. I feel an affinity with the art, with the artists who went before me and worked in and developed this [slowly] evolving form, with all its predesessors. Somehow I also feel bonded to other Native artists, and not just by being in the same category.

Regarding identity, this art form for the most part was a "crest" art, it was used to depict the many clan crests and stories (legends and history) and was applied to almost every single object -- the house screens inside and out, the totems, ceremonial wear, the bentwood boxes, every utilitarian utinsel. It was everywhere, pervasive. It was a way of announcing and expressing clanship, therefore identity. When I design killer whales, the crest of the Tsaagweidi clan to which I belong, I am very conscious that this is a way that I identify myself as a Tlingit. It may be a leap, maybe not, to say that the killer whale design may even be an extension of myself, a little beyond an expression of myself. But I do feel this type of connection, a tribal one.

There is something reassuring and consoling, when I create within our design style (both the early style and its evolution). Hard to explain. I used to watch my father carve in a back room in Michigan. He carved model totems and canoes. I was fascinated. My parents were both teachers. My father was full blooded Tlingit, born and raised in Kake. He was of the T'akdeintaan clan. My mother was from Michigan, so they moved back and forth between Kake and the farm in Michigan. My mother was not native, she was adopted into the Tsaagweidi clan, therefore I am Tsaagweidi. I believe my father carved because it kept him somehow connected to his heritage and his home, when we were in Michigan. When I went to school in San Francisco, I became so homesick. I brought my few carving tools from Kake, and it was soothing to bring them out. Can you begin to understand the many layers of connection to this powerful art form? It's hard to explain. It's wonderful to experience. It's powerful!

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Fine Lines in Tlingit Art

Keet Fine Lines1

If you have ever looked at Tlingit paintings up close, particularly the bentwood boxes, you will be amazed at some of the fine lines the painters were able to achieve! Much of the Tlingit artwork that was collected in the late 1800's and the turn of that century are masterpieces because of the introduction of metals. However, even prior to that, painters were able to fashion paint brushes that allowed them to paint hair thin lines.

I really appreciate the steadiness of the hands that painted some of those fine lines. Even though I have factory made brushes and paints, it requires concentrated and sometimes intense focus and I still don't get my perfect results.

I paint on birch because I like the color, especially after I stain it with a light tan, such as "pecan." But one drawback is the cellular structure leaves a porous surface even after I sand it with progressively finer and finer sandpaper. That gets fairly tricky when it comes to my fine lines. Here's some of the painting I'm talking about:

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New Blog


I have been on down time from my job at the Sheldon Jackson Museum, able to immerse myself more in my most fulfilling pastime: art work! I have been uploading finished items to my online store and as I added each item, I would upload a photo onto my Facebook and then make a blog entry on my Blogger blog.

I thought that was getting a little bit scattered and redundant, so I added this new blog to do all that in one place!

I will be blogging about

  • our Tlingit culture,
  • our Tlingit art,
  • completed art pieces as they are uploaded to the store
  • my own art process,
  • my own life experiences and personal viewpoints.

I hope you come back often to check for updates.

My seasonal job keeps me busy from the first week in May until the first week in October. Posts may slow down during that time, otherwise keep coming back!

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