Alaska. The final frontier, as they are wont to say. This past summer I was able to make a trip to visit a friend and simultaneously help her with a film. There were many elements of the landscape that were literally jaw-dropping. Anywhere the camera was positioned was a great shot. It was incredible. Also incredible as I would find out, was the number of artists that called the town in which I was staying home. It was a hot bed for creative talent. I had the opportunity to interview several of these artists and find out the interests and inspirations for those working out of Haines, Alaska!
John and Sharon Svenson are the owners of Extreme Dreams, an art gallery in Haines, Alaska. The space is exceptional in that it carries work from not only local artists but also those that have pieces traveling from place to place. The featured work is quite varied and the Svensons themselves are both artists, working primarily with glass and wood block prints. Both of their work is on display in different areas of the gallery as well as ONLINE.
The manner in which the different pieces make their way into the gallery varies from artist to artist. Some come directly in with information about work they'd like to feature, and others are recommended. Occasionally, the gallery serves as a launching pad for larger ultimate venues.
Above are several of Sharon Svenson's glass mosaics, which she turned her full attention to after the year 2000. Formerly working in rugs and tapestries, she's remarked that she became tired of the rigidity and structure of the medium. Keeping the idea of the layering of forms and colors though, she currently creates a wide variety of different pieces, which can also be seen HERE.
And below in action the "Afterthoughts" glass beads being made. These have risen in popularity as they include ash remnants of loved ones on occasion and can be customized in design.
GREG HORNER is an artist of diverse talents, creating work in silver carving, silk screening and totem pole design. I had the chance to visit his shop and learn what it is that inspires the designs across these different mediums, which have a related but simultaneously individual aesthetic.
"I live here in Haines, I've lived here since about 1973. I went to high school here and one of the friends I’d made in high school had been carving for quite a few years. And he’s kind of the one that got me started with carving. I do carving that you call Northwest Coast carving. I’m non-native but it’s something that I’ve been doing for a long time."
"Silver engraving is... It’s almost regional to the extent that it's done around this coast. A lot of that is I think the original people, the natives that lived here, their approach to metal was to carve it like they did wood. So as a result we have this. Then they adapted western-style engraving tools to their art. And so there’s a lot of silver metal engraving, silver copper and gold that’s done in this region. But there’s a lot of technical aspects to it, how the tools have to be sharpened. You get tool blanks but you have to customize them to fit your own style. So what you’re doing, they call it engraving but it really it's like carving metal because you’re removing lots of material in the metal. And I was intrigued by that when I first started working here and I was watching this guy, George Lewis, engrave. And like a lot of people you’re just amazed that you can carve metal. I mean it’s soft metal, silver. And he offered to teach me how to engrave. And he made my first tools and I watched him do it."
"You’re engraving so you’re pushing through the metal with a tool that actually raises the metal- it curls out. You almost have to watch it. So you’re removing the metal. And it should be a very smooth clean cut. And then the engraver's vice allows you to make straight lines. You have to just push, but when you come to a curve you can just turn the ball into the tool so it’s actually much easier to cut circles and curved lines and these filaments that we call ovoids."
"I do my own designs and you know it’s hard to describe the properties of the design form but it is based on a certain kind of symmetry and to me the design should have a rhythm and flow, and that's form lined symmetry. And that’s really a fascinating thing about this art form is that it’s an abstract art in that the things you’re representing are an abstraction of that thing. So if it’s a raven or a salmon or a whale it should have all of the physical elements and some sort of resemblance to that creature but it’s still abstract. And you know I don’t always follow this form line but there’s a system of designing that’s based on this form line and everybody has their own styles and to some extent an interpretation of that. That’s why I feel like there’s room for originality and exploration and creativity even within this art form."
CATOTTI & GOLDBERG ART STUDIO
Rob Goldberg and Donna Catotti are another wonderful example of the kind of renaissance artists calling Haines home. The two are responsible for a great variety of artistic ventures including painting, serigraphs, and handmade guitars. I was able to explore all of these while I was given a tour of their studios. Both artists are established in various mediums, but first on our tour were Rob's beautiful instruments. Unique in various ways, not the least of which are their glass inlayed necks, the guitars were each a very individual work of art.
Said Rob, "I’ve been combining artwork with the instruments. I like to do inlay work on the instruments and for years and years I just worked with shell material. Mother of Pearl and Abalone which are traditional inlay materials for guitars. But a few years ago I was up at John and Sharon Svenson's and I was looking at all the colors of glass and I thought wow, if I can inlay with glass that would give me an unlimited color palette and I could really kind of paint with the inlays. But I didn’t have tools to work with the glass. And Sharon said just get some diamond tools. And so I did, I went online and I found some diamond tools and I was off and running so now I can really do some artistic things."
We traveled outside to the instrument studio which was quite intriguing. Seeing the raw wood and tools and knowing that they were going to become capable of making the sounds that they do was a very very cool experience.
"I make guitars, violins and cellos. The violin family instruments are the most like the human voice of any instruments. The violin is a woman’s voice and the cello is like a man’s voice. The viola is the alto, the violin is the soprano. I’ve been making guitars for about 40 years. I’ve just recently started making violin family instruments. I made a cello for a woman here in town and then I made a violin for a guy in Juneau. Finished it this spring. And so the violin family instruments are new for me and very challenging. Every part of the instrument is much more complex than its counterpart of the guitar. If you take the headstock of a guitar for example, it’s just a flat piece of wood with the tuning machines on it, but the violin's head stock is this intricately carved scroll. The violins are arched, the guitars are flat. And so getting into violins has opened up a whole new world for me."
"The common factor is that the soundboards are almost always spruce. Spruce is the wood that sings and we have it around here. It’s rare to find instrument quality wood but I’ve been able to find some. And then the backs and the sides vary. The violin family instruments traditionally are always maple, and the guitars are mostly rosewoods back and sides."
Though the parts of the instruments were eye catching, equally interesting to me were all of the different tools used to create the pieces. Multiple kinds of saws and grips and splicers were around the room and contributing to the overall aesthetic."A lot of my tools are old. They’re older than I am. I started out serving a two year apprenticeship when I started out making guitars, worked with a master instrument maker when I was 18 and 19 and then I went out on my own. This was back in Massachusetts, and I was able to find old tools for not very much money so many of my tools are much older than I am. Like this joiner over here was made in 1911. Still works just fine. They made them really well back then. The table saw and the drill press and this bandsaw over here are all from about 1950."
Rob's handmade guitars can be ordered online and customized HERE. In addition to creating instruments, both Rob and Donna paint, though each prefers a different medium and approach.
Some of Donna's sculptures and sketches were on display as we ventured about. Donna primarily works in oils and pastels, and more of her versatile body of work can be seen HERE.
There are different methods of producing a stencil for printing the serigraph. The film method, a very thin lacquer-soluble film is laid over the pattern and cut with an art knife to trim away the areas you wish to print. After cutting the stencil, one for each color or blend of colors, the film is adhered to the silk screen with a fluid and the backing is removed. With another method, a negative blockout stencil is registered for placement with the other colors so that he imprint will fall in the right place. This becomes more difficult as the number of colors in a print increases. When the ink is prepared to its desired color, proper consistency and transparency, the squeegee is hand-pulled by the artist across the screen, pushing the ink through the silk onto the paper below.
"These that you see up on the walls are our serigraph prints and between the two of us I think we’ve done close to a hundred different editions of these prints. The serigraphs are done by cutting stencils out of a lacquer film. You start with a pattern, and we cut a stencil for each color. And print the colors one at a time. We do these out in the room out there. The process involves a lot of solvents so we keep it totally separate out here. So here’s a stack of paper that’s ready to be printed on. We’ll start with a stack of about 200 sheets of paper. And we’ll print the first color on everything and then that stencil’s dissolved off and then we’ll print another and another and another. Silk Screening. It’s a matter of cutting stencils, mixing colors, making sure all the layers line up. And just layering your colors on there until you get what you want. Takes a long time. Weeks and weeks. And we have these out at about a dozen galleries out in Alaska."
ALASKA INDIAN ARTS, INC
ALASKA INDIAN ARTS in its own words is a "nonprofit corporation dedicated to the preservation and continuation of traditional native craft and culture of the Northwest Coast Native Tribes." The organization began as a way to provide regalia for reenactments of Tlingit tribal dances by a young scout troupe, and this eventually led to the opening of a place where both dancing and traditional wood carving would be taught. Currently, there are not only silk screen prints but also totem poles created in the facility, which has changed locales a few times before settling in its current Fort Seward location. Director Lee Heinmiller was able to speak with me about the continuation of traditional carving and the meaning behind the different designs, types of wood and resulting pieces.
"We started teaching kids to dance and other people to carve. We probably had 75 people trained in carving and of those 75 there’s maybe 15 that are still active. Other than the 5 people that work here there’s another 5 here in town still active in carving Everybody that’s carving here has been here since they were teenagers. We moved into this particular building in ’75."
When a customer comes to the organization with a totem pole request, it usually involves the representation of different elements of their culture or tradition. This dates back to the tradition of storytelling through the different carvings, with each native tribe choosing different representations or crests to feature in their work. Depending on the family and the story, the work could vary drastically. Lee told us one such totem-inspiring story called The Porpoise and the Uncle.
"This is the story about how they acquired the porpoise as a crest. And this is the porpoise on the bottom with his blow hole here and his tail kind of folded up and tucked under his chin. And the figure on the top is a male figure of an uncle holding the dagger in one hand and he’s standing with the head of an octopus between his feet and the tentacles coming up and kind of wrapped around his head. In Tlingit culture you’re raised by your maternal uncle because he’s in the same clan as your mom and you as kids where your father isn’t, he's in an opposite clan. So you hear your father’s clan’s history but you don’t’ learn it and you don’t get to tell it without some degree of permission. Otherwise you learn your clan’s history which is
matrilineal and goes back generations. And so the uncle was out fishing in Icy Straights with his two nephews and they were fishing for halibut and they mistakenly caught a porpoise and when they released the porpoise that put some blood in the water and that blood attracted a kraken a giant octopus that came up and grabbed the canoe and was dragging it under. And so in an effort to save his nephews from oblivion he lashed a dagger to his wrist, dove overboard and battled with the octopus and in a big pool of blood both he and the octopus disappeared. So then the nephews were left in the canoe out in Icy Straights going now what, and the porpoise pushed the body of the uncle back to the surface so they could retrieve it and take it back into the village for cremation. So that is the event that caused them to choose solidarity with the porpoise."
Below is a totem featuring an eagle crest belonging to the Chokhta Nadi tribe, per Heinmiller.
Of the carving process itself, Lee shared some very interesting notes.
"The back is hollowed out because you start when the log is green and wet and you cut the wettest hard wood out of the pole first and then it starts slowly drying and then those cloths on it are just damp and we’ll cover it and then put plastic over the top at night. If it’s 75 degrees it’s drying faster than you want. This is yellow cedar which is the 2nd slowest growing tree in North America. It’s Alaskan Yellow Cedar and it’s not in the cedar family. It’s in the Cyprus family. That’s Alaskan Red Cedar. That log is probably 250 years old, this log is probably 500 years old. And the log downtown that’s the totem next to the library is an 800-year-old log. But a big red cedar, 800 years old would be 8 foot in diameter and a big yellow cedar could be 2,000 years old and 5 or 6 foot in diameter."
In addition to the aesthetic, Heinmiller also informed us about more differences and uses for red and yellow cedar and how those played into traditional practices.
"There’s 100 years in an inch. [Yellow cedar] is impervious to acids and marine bores so in the world of specialty wood it’s about 3 times the price of red cedar. But there’s only a few places that cut it. People have used it since the Russians and before. It’s a really good wood. A lot of canoe paddles are made out of it. But not very many yellow cedar logs are made into canoes, mostly it’s red cedar. The grain’s a lot easier. When you do a red cedar canoe you’re stretching it when you steam it open. It makes nice paddles though because red cedar’s light weight and really straight-grained and if you whack your canoe paddle on a rock it can split it off where yellow cedar the grain really holds it together. And if you beat it up it really only just gets fuzzy and you can just take some shark skin and sand it down."
CAROL TUYNMAN: ON PUBLIC ART IN HAINES
I had the opportunity to speak with Carol Tuynman of the Alaska Arts Confluence who is currently working on a somewhat large scale project that will see work from all kinds of different artists brought out of the gallery space and into public space. The concept was very interesting and I wanted to know more about it. Carol lives in an area called Mud Bay and is a publisher of the magazine EAR, founded by the legendary JOHN CAGE. We had a chat about the project and Carol filled me in on what she saw happening.
"When I came up here, I just kind of looked around and listened to what people were saying and it seemed like people were really concerned about not having a good economy. Even though everyone I knew was doing fine. You know, people had jobs, fishing and all that. And so I thought, what could help the economy. And I love art, so I just started thinking about all these downtown vacant buildings. And thinking like in New York, you’ll go in Soho or somewhere, or anywhere, really in the country. You’ll see an art display in a window. And I thought how great it would be just to have a whole line of art displays in all these vacant windows. So I talked to the owner of IGA and he’d been having the backs of the produce were what people looked at in the window. Basically the idea is to fill these windows around town, mainly on mainstreet, with art displays, with good lighting, especially in the winter time, it’s dark here at night so it lights up the street, it’s nice. And there’s a lot of artists that aren’t really well-known so it’s an opportunity, they don’t really have galleries necessarily. They may have a gallery but it’s in their home and they don’t really invite people. So that’s the idea behind that."
I was intrigued the concept of context and the way in which presenting art in different venues had the potential to be a game changer for perception. While neither of us could predict the outcome, Carol did provide insight into the immediate effects she could see being put into action.
"We’re trying to revitalize different neighborhoods using art. And just, you know, make it a nice experience for everybody. It’s more quality of life and a pleasant and thoughtful environment that people can relate to…. It’s very much about Public Art. And I love going to museums and galleries but it’s a certain kind of person that goes there. And it’s good to have things around everybody. You know to have beauty and creativity that belongs to everybody."
Those interested in having their work featured in a downtown installation can send their written proposals to the following address:The Alaska Arts ConfluencePO Box 1664, Haines, 99827And so thank you for meeting the different artists and exploring with me, hopefully you enjoyed the journey. I had an awesome time in Haines and hopefully at some point will be able to make my way back to Alaska. There's a lot of very interesting people making some very interesting work, unique in purpose and aesthetic. I'm really glad I was able to share it.