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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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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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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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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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