Tlingit artist Ricky Tagaban claims he’s easily distracted by learning new art forms.
“I’m a Raven, so I’ll think, ‘Oh there’s a shiny thing, I’ll play with that for awhile,” Tagaban joked.
But a conversation with the 21-year-old Tagaban reveals not a mind prone to distraction, but one with extraordinary focus, and a commitment to learning about his culture through intensive study of traditional art and Tlingit language. Still in college, he has already studied cedar bark weaving with Haida weaver Della Cheney, Chilkat weaving with Juneau weaver Clarissa Rizal and silver carving with Juneau carver Ed Kunz; all three of these teachers are the among the most respected artists in the state. He’s also passionately involved in learning to speak Tlingit, and is currently a teacher’s assistant for Lance Twitchell at the University of Alaska Southeast, where he is pursuing a bachelor’s in Tlingit language.
This First Friday he’ll show the results of a recent push in a new direction: his paintings. The paintings, done in Tlingit formline design, adorn coats and bags created by Kodiak Coats’ owner Bridget Milligan. Tagaban and Milligan’s combined art will be featured Friday at Kodiak Coats.
Painting isn’t something Tagaban’s done much of before, but in the past few months he’s been grateful for the focus it has given him. In September, Tagaban’s older brother, Joe, was killed in a mining accident. The devastating loss has forced him to step back from his classes at UAS this past semester. In the process of trying to regain his footing and move forward, painting has provided a place of mental rest.
“It’s been therapeutic to paint,” he said. “It’s sort of like slowing down enough to get into the (artistic) process, and the process really is one step at a time. There’s no way to do it all at once. It’s not like meditation, but it’s allowed me to slow down enough to think. And still feel productive.”
He has also been doing some carving on copper, and said he hopes to have some bracelets for sale at the Public Market this year. He will also have items at the Kodiak Coat booth during the market.
More than just activities, Tagaban’s artistic pursuits provide a way for him to increase his understanding of his culture; he said he’s had a strong interest in Tlingit traditions since he was little.
“It’s really something that I’ve been chasing, sort of dragging my family with me.” he said with a laugh. “I remember just really feeling this intense pride when I was a little kid, thinking, ‘hey, I’m Native. I’m really happy about that.’ And I’ve been really lucky with this community, I think.”
His parents have been consistently supportive as well, he said.
“They’ve always been really excited for me to learn the language,” he said. “I don’t think they really thought that I would stay so intensely interested in the art. But they’re very supportive.”
Tagaban has another brother and two sisters. His cousin is well-known Tlingit storyteller and performance artist Gene Tagaban.
Tagaban himself has done some storytelling, with Perseverance Theatre’s Beyond Heritage, a Tlingit cultural festival begun by Ishmael Hope. Tagaban has also tried wood carving, but said it wasn’t really for him.
Tagaban’s collaboration with Milligan began a couple years ago when she asked him to help her with some prototype designs on silk. Though he enjoyed painting on fabric, he said he prefers using leather, in part because it’s a traditional material and in part because he is able to more precisely create the design he wants. Tagaban combines traditional formline design, usually ovoid shapes, with a more contemporary interpretations. In one recent project, for example, he began making a traditional coho design — Tagaban’s clan emblem — but soon found the design resembled a flying goose or swan.
Milligan has been very supportive of his work from the beginning, he said.
“I really like how Bridget and I collaborate,” he said. “She just gave me the paint and said, ‘Do what you want. Come back when you have some work done.’”
Tagaban said he learned the basics of formline design from Kunz while studying silver carving with him, beginning when he was 17. Kunz is also leader of the Coho clan, so while receiving artistic instruction from Kunz, Tagaban was also learning more about Tlingit ways.
“We don’t have rites of passage the same way we did before contact, which is fine, we are dynamic ... But really when he took me as a student it was to become more a full member of the clan. So it wasn’t just learning carving, I was learning history and lineage and how to relate as a member of the clan.”
Cheney, another mentor, also taught Tagaban about much more than art, beginning when he was 12 or 13.
“She just has this amazing spirit,” he said. “She’s really shown me and told me how to accept myself, to be OK with where I am and to constantly move forward.”
Tagaban also learned Ravenstail techniques from Douglas weaver Kay Parker while he was in high school. He once created a Ravenstail piece for Juneau’s wearable art show created out of plastic bags. Though Ravenstail was a strong interest, Chilkat weaving, which he learned from Rizal, has become something of an obsession.
”I think I’m going to Chilkat weave — hopefully — for the rest of my life,” he said.
He hopes to accompany Rizal this summer to teach classes in Yakutat, and to begin his own robe soon.
“I’d like to do the whole process, collecting the mountain goat wool and processing it,” he said. “I’d probably end up buying the weft to weave on top. But it all takes a super long time.”
Though Tagaban’s energy has been considerably depleted during the difficult months following his brother’s death, he does have several exciting projects in the works that he hopes to get back to soon. He received a grant to head up a project called Yaakw Yées, or Young Canoe, with the Wooch.een student club at UAS. The project is an ambitious one, involving construction of two canoes using traditional methods and materials, and continuing with education linked to the process of building and, eventually, using the canoes. Tagaban said he hopes to have the project up and running within two years, and that the project really stresses connections and inclusiveness.
“The idea is to bring everyone to the table,” he said. “We want to sort of bridge that gap between Western learning and Native knowledge. Through carving the canoes and using the canoes we can have geography classes, language classes, (or learn about) traditional fishing techniques.”
Though Tagaban’s focus extends in many directions, his primary commitment is to the language. He said his ideal job would be as professor of a tribal college, where he could teach art alongside language. He would love to see instruction start at the pre-K level, continue possibly thorough a charter school, and then into the tribal college.
His focus on the language is based on the idea that that is where there is the most need for attention.
“Our language needs a lot of love,” he said.
“Really, the art is fine, the art is not dead, it’s not dying. Hundreds of people can weave, hundreds of people can carve, it’s not in danger. The language is really in need of a lot of people. A lot of people need to focus on it.”
See Tagaban’s paintings and Milligan’s bags and coats at the Kodiak Coat Company this Friday from 4-7 p.m. Kodiak Coats is located above Paradise Cafe.