Art of place series concludes with presentation on local foods, potluck

Helen Abbott-Watkins peels the bark from a stick of devil's club in June, 2010.

The University of Alaska Southeast’s Art of Place lecture series wraps up this week with its sixth installment, “Gathering and preserving local food,” featuring Helen Watkins.


In keeping with this week’s topic, and in celebration of the new series, a full potluck will be held after Watkins’ presentation. Attendees are encouraged to bring a dish that reflects their own experience of place — whether that place is Juneau or somewhere else they consider important.

The series has given campus and community members access to six renowned Tlingit artists and their areas of expertise: Watkins (local foods), Della Cheney (basketry), Clarissa Rizal (textile weaving), Ed Kunz (silver carving), Doug Chilton (wood carving) and Florence Sheakley (beadwork).

Organizer Ernestine Hayes, UAS assistant professor of English, said in presenting the series she hoped to affect campus and community members’ understanding of the complexity inherent in traditional Tlingit art, and the deep connection that exists between that art and the place from which it emerged.

“The arts that we were able to witness emerge from this place in a very real way and are rooted, literally rooted, in this place,” Hayes said. “For academic purposes certainly a sense of place is an important component of our studies, but more than that, our relationship to our place must have an understanding of the culture, the history and the living that emerges from it. Otherwise our sense of place is incomplete.”

Hayes said she feels the richness and complexity of Tlingit art and culture directly reflects the richness and complexity of the land itself. Being exposed to that relationship through an exploration of Tlingit art is beneficial not only to those within the culture, she said, but to others who, though they live here and appreciate the land’s beauty, may be unaware of the depth of that relationship.

“Its so easy to stand on the mountaintop and view the panorama, and that seems to be what is the more common experience,” Hayes said. “But to stand on the ground, and touch what emerges from it, that’s a deeper experience.”

Over the course of the first five sessions, audience members both Native and non-Native listened to a wide range of discussions. They heard about how an abundance — or scarcity — of natural materials led to artistic modifications in traditional arts over time, and how a decline in artistic activity in the early and mid-1900s has in recent years been offset by a resurgence in teaching and practicing traditional art. They also heard the artists explain how a respectful and knowledgeable approach to traditional designs and Tlingit kinship systems is essential in carrying forth the culture and honoring previous generations, much in the way that Tlingit language is carried forth by its young speakers. The proper use of clan crests or emblems in art involves far more than aesthetic decisions; each design is based on complex considerations that include personal and cultural identity, clan ownership, and thousands of years of history.

Similarly, finished products are much more than “art.”

All five artists also shared personal stories. Many spoke of their teachers, of the importance of patience, and of the respect with which they were taught to approach their work.

Weavers Cheney and Rizal discussed examples of original designs based on traditional patterns, such as Cheney’s “Women of Justice” Chilkat robe and Rizal’s “Jennie Weaves an Apprentice” Chilkat robe, both of which are contemporary examples of an ancient art. The women also both shared stories about gathering the raw materials necessary for their craft, and the challenges and rewards that process brings. Cheney was accompanied by one of her students, Eileen Wagner, who has been so successful in learning the craft in recent years that she’s taken on students of her own.

Carvers Chilton and Kunz also brought samples of their work and of their tools (many of them handmade). Kunz passed around bracelets and earrings he has made for his wife Percy, inscribed to her on the back, and showed examples of not-yet-complete pieces to illustrate his artistic process. Chilton, who was accompanied by his son, also a carver, even brought an unfinished cedar totem pole and allowed audience members to try out his carving tools on it, an activity many seemed thrilled to get the chance to try. An audience member at Florence Sheakley’s presentation on beadwork brought along her own beaded button blanket, and, after asking permission, shared her work with the assembled group.

Hayes said she was very glad to see audience members and other artists joining in to the discussions in these ways, and hopes to continue this trend when the lecture series continues.

Another element she hopes to encourage is more storytelling, both from the master artists and from audience members.

Overall, Hayes said she was pleased with the way the series unfolded and that she’s heard good things about every one of the presentations from different people.

“For the first year I’m just really happy that it went so well. I hope it’s going to become a university tradition.”

Watkins’ talk begins at 10 a.m. in the Glacier View Room at UAS. The potluck begins at 11:30 a.m. All are welcome.


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