The last installment of the four-part Art of Place lecture series will be offered Friday, April 27, at the University of Alaska Southeast. “Art of Place as Sustenance” will feature Helen Watkins and Libby Watanabe, who will speak about methods of traditional harvest and food preparation.
The event runs from 10 a.m. to noon in the Glacier View Room in the Egan building, room 220, and will be followed by a potluck and Q&A with the artists. Attendees are encouraged (but not required) to bring a potluck dish to share.
This was the second season of the lecture series, founded by UAS professor Ernestine Hayes, and made possible by funding from BP Conoco Phillips. This spring’s featured speakers, in addition to Watkins and Watanabe, were Steve Henrikson and Janice Criswell, who spoke about “Art of Place as History”; Lyle James, who presented “Art of Place as Future”; and Ed and Percy Kunz, who spoke about “Art of Place as Identity.”
Each installment of the series has offered a unique, in-depth look at certain aspects of Tlingit culture. Even more interesting, perhaps, is the opportunity these presentations provide for members of the public to hear prominent community members’ personal stories and thoughts on these subjects.
Henrikson and Criswell started things off last January. The couple, who are married, both have an avid interest in and in-depth knowledge of Native Alaskan history, particularly as that history is expressed through art. This is a strength they explore through their own art and through restoration work, some of which is collaborative, such as the Fish Trap Replica model they created for the Juneau Douglas City Museum.
Though extensive research and extreme attention to detail is required in doing restoration work, Henrikson said there is value in leaving some mental room for the unsolvable puzzles of history.
“We’re students too,” he said. “There’s no need for it to be definitive. We should learn to be OK with the mystery of it. And there’s lots of mystery.”
Among the many stories the couple shared with the audience was Criswell’s riveting account of being present at an excavation project in Sitka where a dirty, almost unrecognizable pile of wet fabric scraps was dug up and brought over to her in a bucket. She immediately recognized the scraps as being an incredibly rare example of a ravenstail robe, and described the “wave of energy” that came up at her from the fragments as she stared in disbelief. Criswell, a highly-regarded Haida weaver, was later involved in the “Hands Across Time” ravenstail robe, the first contemporary ravenstail robe made in Alaska with a new design, and one of several modern robes created in the early 1990s. Some of Criswell’s robes were on display at the presentation, including one modeled by her granddaughter, Abby.
The next Art of Place presenter was Lyle James, leader of the Woosh.ji.een dance group. James’ high-energy presentation included Tlingit songs, which James performed with a drum, sometimes accompanied by his wife. James traced some of his family stories through the songs that express them, giving them a personal and historical context, and translating the Tlingit verses for the audience. He also went further back, exploring the possible beginnings of traditional dance — in one telling, as a response to the movements and sounds of the grouse, as explained on a film clip by Walter Soboleff and John Martin — and the use of the paddle and the staff in performance. Throughout his presentation, James emphasized the importance of Tlingit dance and song to him personally -- as a father, a husband, and a member of his clan.
“When I dance I feel complete,” James said.
James, who grew up in Hoonah and Kake, also described the dance style he teaches his group, which he said is based on an incorporation of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian styles. It involves a lot of movement — as the volunteers who stood up to try it soon found out. Each was given a drum and asked to follow James along through deep knee bends, twists and pivots. (All performed admirably.)
The third speakers in the series were Ed and Percy Kunz. The Kunzes stood behind a table laden with colorful, beautifully beaded robes, some of which were created by Percy Kunz. Others were family heirlooms.
The couple spoke about the importance of the clan crests represented on the robes, and shared some of the stories and history involved in the examples they brought to share.
‘“We wear our history on our back,’” Ed Kunz said, quoting Austin Hammond.
Ed Kunz, addressing the subject of Art as Identity, also spoke about the importance of names.
“They’re not names like ‘Tom,’ ‘Dick,’ or ‘Harry.’ Some are big shot names, some are so old that people know what they mean but they don’t know where they came from,” he said, sharing examples from his own family.
In addition to being culture bearers, the Kunzes are both artists; Ed Kunz is a renowned silver carver and Percy is a beader and weaver. Percy Kunz said she was 65 when she learned to weave — from Della Cheney — and has grown to love it.
“It takes a long time, she said. You have to enjoy what you’re doing.”
The final installment in the series, featuring Watkins and Watanabe, will focus on subsistence. At last season’s event, Watkins whipped up a batch of fresh soapberries for an overflow crowd. We’ll find out Friday what she has in store this year.
For more information about the event, visit www.uas.alaska.edu/artofplace/.