Since time immemorial, our art has been completely integrated as part of our culture. The story of our people has been passed down orally from generation to generation, and art is our visual language, saying this is who we are and where we come from.
Traditionally, if you were known as a “carver” for your clan, you were highly regarded. Your role was to create the objects that preserved our history and culture. Our stories can be told through any medium: a drum, a bentwood box, a mask, a rattle, or a kootéeyaa (totem pole).
The carver’s skill also makes the Tlingit world of the supernatural visible. We believe that you give respect to all things: humans, animals, the earth—all exist on the same plane. One is not above the other; everything is alive and contains spirit. You see the transformation between human and animal and the cohesion between worlds depicted in the art. The spirit is our commonality, and obligatory respect is given.
If a young man showed any skill in carving, he immediately began an apprenticeship under the master carvers of his clan. The apprentice learned by watching and by doing, by following the example of the master. So, while the master carved one side of the totem pole, his apprentice copied his cuts on the other side. This passing of knowledge from generation to generation has always been part of our traditional ways.
In my eyes, the carver’s skill in making the spirit visible by the pieces he created was magical.
Our ancestors set a very high standard to strive for. Though we may have every tool imaginable, modern-day Tlingit artists will tell you we are not at our ancestors’ level. They had this incredible knowledge we don’t have today, a generational knowledge that alongside their incredible skill made their work extraordinary. It’s going to take lifetimes to attain that level.
The foundation and nucleus of our culture was called our ku’eex (potlatch). Ku’eex, which means “to give,” was a feast that brought together clans to celebrate kinship and reaffirm connections to the land and their ancestors. Your status as a clan chief was determined not by how much you could acquire but by how much you could give away. The death of a chief, the naming of a new one, the raising of a totem pole, a new clan house dedication—all are reasons to host a ku’eex.
A ku’eex was an opportunity to bring out our at’oow. These are our sacred ceremonial objects such as masks and clan hats as well as intangible sacred things such as songs and stories. You would see the true intention of the art form on display during this event: songs were sung, masks and regalia were danced in, clan hats were brought out and worn. Everyone in attendance was given a gift and fed, using beautiful bowls and horn spoons.
To plan and put away enough food for a ku-eex could take years. The clan hats worn by high-ranking Tlingit clan chiefs often have rings stacked on top. Each ring represents a ku’eex that the chief hosted.
During colonization, the ku’eex was banned by the government and church. There was a point in time when we were not allowed to sing songs, carve, or even speak our traditional Tlingit language. Everything that could be done to destroy our culture was done. Large amounts of our at’oow was taken or destroyed. Our once prosperous way of life was taken from us. By the turn of the 20th century, the Tlingit culture and our incredible art was nonexistent.
Through colonization, we even lost the traditional terminology our ancestors used to properly describe Tlingit imagery. Bill Holm, a non-native teacher for the University of Washington who studied the Northern style of the art form (Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian), came up with new terminology in the 1960s. His term “formline” refers to the distinctive lines of carved objects. Additional words from Holm like ovoid, u-form, split u-form are how we learn and comprehend the art form.
To be a good carver, you have to be able to draw formline. It teaches you how all lines balance off each other. Once you learn the fundamentals, you develop your own style, a signature that says it’s yours without needing to sign the piece. This develops naturally after years of creating pieces. Strong artists I look up to, you can tell it’s their work. That’s their signature.
I taught myself the fundamentals of the art form. For me, the best teacher is the work of my ancestors. You can learn so much by looking at a single old piece. You can learn about composition, balance, tension, and positive and negative space. My heart is in creating traditional pieces, pieces that can exist seamlessly within our culture a thousand years ago. I often think when I finish a piece: if I presented this in front of my grandfathers, what would they think? That is where my heart is.
You’re going to spend your lifetime learning Tlingit formline. You’re never going to really master it. But that is the beauty of it.
You’re always reaching, reaching for something that seems unattainable.
The other side of the traditional realm is contemporary work. As a Tlingit artist, I believe you can exist in both realms, though I want to honor my ancestors by not veering too far off their path as far as formline style and colors. I’m fortunate to take Tlingit art to new areas it hasn’t gone before by working with global brands like Vans, Lib-Tech Snowboards, Volcom Clothing, Smartwool, Yeti, and Google. Every brand I work with honors the traditions and culture of Tlingit art with the utmost respect.
Working with these brands is like a dream come true. It wasn’t by design, because everything happened organically. I was approached by them. I believe that as an artist, you have to focus on being really good at what you do. You have to bring positive energy and be open. You will start to attract people to you, and when an opportunity presents itself, you have to have the courage to take it. You don’t fumble it or second guess your ability, because if you let the opportunity pass, you’re not going to be able to reach back and get it. It’ll be gone. Your skill and ability will present these things to you when you’re ready, I believe that.
As a Tlingit artist today, you have a larger responsibility on your shoulders than just trying to create something that is “beautiful.” You carry the legacy of colonization and the weight of a culture and traditions that go back thousands of years. I welcome this weight. Everyone is searching for their purpose in life, for what they are meant to do. To be a Tlingit artist isn’t a hobby. You don’t just do this on the weekends. You dedicate your entire life to it. It’s difficult, but it’s supposed to be.
Whether I chose it or it chose me, this is exactly what I’m meant to be doing.
To have this ability, to be a Tlingit artist, is such a gift. My ancestors placed this gift in my hands for a reason. They said, “Here, it’s your turn to carry this through your lifetime.” I am going to make the absolute most out of it. I’ve dedicated my whole life to pursuing this art form and carrying it forward. We were given a puzzle, a puzzle that we know is missing pieces, that’s incomplete. But we are going to pick up the pieces we have and put it back together the best way we know how.
When I was carving in Alaska years ago, a Tlingit Elder watched me. Afterwards she said, “Your ancestors are smiling down on you.”
Gunalcheesh (thank you).
—James Johnson, Tlingit artist
Outside Voices articles feature creative thinkers and makers discussing their artwork and creative processes.