Tlingit and Aleut artist Nicholas Galanin defies easy categorization. His finished works span many forms — from video to sculpture — and his artistic process, like the living culture that informs his art, is constantly in motion, driven by concepts and fed by a seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy.
If you define conservative literally, as someone who shuns change, Galanin is the opposite of conservative. At the same time, though not paradoxically, his works and interviews reveal an artist deeply connected to Native Alaskan traditions and history.
On Friday, Galanin will be the featured Evening at Egan speaker, presenting “New Culture” at 7 p.m. at the Egan Lecture Hall at the University of Alaska Southeast. Later that night, he’ll be hosting an album release party (as Silver Jackson, his name as a musician), celebrating his latest CD “It’s Glimmering Now,” at the Alaskan Hotel and Bar.
Galanin said he welcomes opportunities to open up a dialogue about his art in public forums such as Evening at Egan — an interaction that’s more easily achieved when he’s playing music.
“With music you have your audience right in front of you when you play, you get that feedback. The art world is a little different,” he said from Toronto earlier this week. Viewers experiences with his art tend to take place elsewhere — in a museum or gallery — apart from him. Direct discussions about his art and concepts involved in its creation help bridge that gap.
“The visual work really is a tool for creating and discussing the ideas behind the work — the social aspects, political aspects, historical aspects,” he said.
Some of Galanin’s visual art calls attention to preconceived ideas about Alaska Native culture, an approach reinforced by his unexpected media. In a solo show called “What Have We Become?” he sculpted culturally significant books, such as Frederica De Laguna’s “Under Mount Saint Elias,” an ethnographic history of the Yakutat Tlingit, into masks. One bears his profile, others follow more traditional forms.
Another project, “Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan: We Will Again Open This Container of Wisdom That Has Been Left in Our Care,” (www.youtube.com/ngalanin), is video based. In Part I, a young dancer performs a free-form modern dance to traditional Tlingit music. In Part 2, the modern and traditional elements are flipped: a dancer dressed in a Tlingit regalia dances to modern electronic music. Galanin said in this case, the title of the work helped drive the project’s creation.
A third project, created for “Dry Ice,” a multi-artist exhibit on polar region environmental change, featured a wolf sculpture in which the back of the animal is a lifeless pelt — like a bearskin rug — while the front is brought into realistic three-dimensional form — a wolf in its full, life-like stance.
Galanin said his pieces are usually concept-driven; he determines the medium after getting the idea.
“I welcome variables and am excited by discovery through process; a huge part of being creative is experimentation, risk, and open-mindedness,” he said in a previous interview for the UAS literary journal, Tidal Echoes.
Galanin learned traditional Tlingit formline design from master carvers such as his father, Dave Galanin, and uncle, Will Burkhardt, as well as Wayne Price and others. While immersing himself in their teachings, he didn’t give thought to applying those methods to non-traditional art forms, he said. But after his first exhibit, in Vancouver in 2002, he began to consider alternate directions.
“I felt like the work wasn’t completely open to my voice and the concepts that I’ve experienced in life so that was when I really started to focus on creating new work,” he said.
After a mixed experience at London Guildhall University in London, England, where he received a bachelor’s of fine arts in jewelry design and silversmithing, he was spurred forward by his interactions with indigenous artists in New Zealand; he received a master’s in indigenous visual arts at Massey University in 2007.
Since then he has continued to carve out an extremely active path in the indigenous art world. He’s given lectures on art from Germany to New York City, and his art can be found in museums across the country, including the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., The Anchorage Museum, the Burke Museum in Seattle, and our own Alaska State Museum in Juneau. This past week, he opened a new solo exhibit at the Toronto Free Gallery. “Nicholas Galanin’s First Law of Motion,” described as an examination of “the state of culture arrested by colonialism and kitsched by tourism.”
Though its difficult to imagine how he makes time for other creative pursuits, he’s also heavily involved in the music world, and is co-founder of the popular Home Skillet Music Festival in Sitka, which brings outside acts together with Alaska musicians in a week-long celebration, and Home Skillet records, an independent label. He’s also just released his second CD, “It’s Glimmering Now,” and will celebrate with an album release party while he’s in Juneau this weekend. The party, which also features the OC Notes, Diatribe NW and Nicole Church, begins at 9 p.m. Friday at the Alaskan Hotel & Bar.
For more on Galanin, visit galan.in.