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Young Tlingit artist honors tradition with Trickster brand

Posted: October 4, 2012 - 12:01am
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Tlingit artist Rico Worl points to differences between his self-described "blocky" formline style and more traditional ovoid shapes.
Tlingit artist Rico Worl points to differences between his self-described "blocky" formline style and more traditional ovoid shapes.

The juxtaposition of tradition and innovation is fairly common in contemporary Tlingit art; less so is the blend of seriousness and exuberance found in Rico Worl’s skateboard designs. The designs Worl creates for his boards are graphic, modern, and — backed with colorful paint splatters — even playful; and yet his execution of formline design and other Tlingit elements is carefully considered, the product of in-depth study of traditional rules and cultural protocol.

Raised amidst the influence of many highly respected Tlingit artists and culture bearers — including his grandmother Rosita Worl, his aunt Celeste Worl, and clan member Nathan Jackson — Worl’s cultural education began early, and included an appreciation of art as an integral element of his life.

“I actually never decided to make it into a profession — I just always did it,” Worl said.

He painted his first board when he was 23, a long-board with a sockeye design he still rides, and quickly began picking up requests for boards from family members and friends.

This week, he’ll take his art to the next level by launching his own business, Trickster Company, featuring his first manufactured designs. The opening, to be held on First Friday at Sequence Boardshop on Franklin Street, will showcase Worl’s hand-painted Canadian maple boards as well as his manufactured designs, an eagle and a raven short-board.

The manufactured boards are also currently for sale in Seattle, with the possibility of Anchorage, Sitka and Yakutat stores carrying them in the future.

Worl said he chose eagle and raven to adorn his initial manufactured boards because they are general designs than aren’t limited by the protocols of clan ownership. Worl, who is a Raven of the Lukaax.ádi (sockeye) clan, has the right to use his own clan crest, as well as that of the thunderbird, his grandmother’s clan, but protocols would apply if he were to use crests of other clans.

“I figured (the eagle and raven) would be a place to start as far as the manufactured boards since I need to market things that are relevant to larger audiences,” he said. “I do a lot of boards on commission, usually for family members, so some have a shark or salmon design, or whatever their crests are, but I don’t have rights to use those crests. So when it comes to manufacturing I try to use general designs, just out of respect to the clans that own the designs.”

For the eagle and raven boards, Worl scanned drawings into Adobe Illustrator, and overlaid them onto the background layer, a splatter paint backdrop pattern he created in his studio. The colors of the paint splatters were added in Illustrator.

For his handpainted boards, Worl has tapped into a wide variety of inspiration, most of which centers on aspects of Tlingit culture. An anthropology major, Worl is the arts director at Sealaska Heritage Institute, overseeing arts programming for the regional Native nonprofit organization. He said his job often informs the artwork he decides to do.

“I was trained as an anthropologist so it’s all based on the things i’m studying, or that I’m looking at when I’m at (Sealaska),” he said. “A lot of that ends up being reflected in my work.”

For example, one of his hand-painted boards shows a Tlingit canoe with a tall curving front, a design loosely based on a painting by Bill Holm.

Another art piece, a set of four long-boards with a contiguous design, was loosely based on a Chilkat blanket he saw in a museum at the University of Pennsylvania, where he went to college. The long-boards, painted in black and left largely open in design, are reminiscent of traditional pattern boards used by Chilkat weavers, he said.

“Traditionally, the men would do the designs like this and the women would weave them,” he said. “They would stand (the pattern board) behind their loom so as they were weaving they had a guide about where they needed to change colors.”

In addition to exploring Tlingit art and history through his designs, Worl hopes to eventually be able to provide an avenue for other artists to showcase their work.

“It is a business, so I have to be able to pay for the boards that I order in the first place and pay myself back, but I think I would like to be able to make a business that also supports other artists. That’s the biggest part where my goals at work cross over with the same goals I have personally.”

In his job as SHI arts director, Worl’s goals include providing training opportunities for Native artists, developing markets for Native art, protecting access to traditional materials, and promoting research and education. Worl said he loves his work, and has no immediate plans to devote himself to art full time.

In getting his business off the ground Worl had help from his friend Christy Eriksen,
who also works at Sealaska Heritage Institute as the media and publications assistant.

“Christy helped me come up with the name — she’s really good with words.” he said. “It’s a perfect name, culturally relevant — both Tlingit-wise and skate-wise. Originally I started with Trickster Skateboards, and I changed it recently to add Trickster Company ... just so I could allow Trickster to transform.”

Down the line Worl might research snowboard designs, but that would involve a much more complicated fabrication process.

“That is the number one request I’ve had, but there’s so much technology involved with it that ... unless I had a huge amount of startup money I don’t think I’d be able to it independently.”

Worl said he was influenced in his decision to paint skateboards by the work of Douglas Miles, founder of Apache Skateboards, whom he met through friends while attending the Sante Fe Indian market. But while Miles’ designs are themselves modern, referencing pop-culture and anime, Worl tends to use traditional designs in a modern way.

More general artistic influences include his aunt Celeste and his sister Crystal, as well as carver Donald Gregory, who has been invaluable in giving him feedback as he gets his business started, he said.

In learning formline he also drew heavily on the “bible” of formline design, Bill Holm’s 1965 classic work, “Northwest Coast Indian Art, An Analysis of Form,” and his grandmother’s collection of art and anthropology books.

“I would go through her books and study. And that’s what a lot of the masters will tell you, you have to study the old stuff because that’s where things were done correctly and you have to learn how to do them correctly before you start breaking the rules — which is important also.”

And he is still learning, particularly in terms of Northwest Coast formline.

“As far as Native art I think I’m a kind of a beginner,” he said. “Studying formline has a lot of complexities to it.”

In contrast to traditional formline, Worl said his ovoid forms (squared oval shapes common in Northwest coast art) tend to be a bit more square than round — that is by design.

“Tlingit ovoids are a little bit more round, whereas mine are usually a little bit more blocky,” he said. “You can see in the forehead area and in the beak (of the raven design), they have sharper turns.”

Technically speaking, however, he does not consider his raven and eagle designs to be formline. Formline is a delinating element that can swell from line to form, depending on what part of the design is being depicted; his raven and eagle drawings are done in a single-width fine line.

Worl said he thinks he was drawn to the splatter paint style evidenced on his raven and eagle boards in part because it provided a release from the discipline of formline.

“It’s sort of a relief after having been so strict on my formline. I can just go ‘i want color here!’ he said with a laugh.

Worl said he doesn’t really care if a person who buys a board from him intends to ride it or hang it on the wall. He likes the idea of his boards being used but if the person sees it as an art piece, that’s fine too. In his own home, he has a handpainted board that he rides, as well as several hung along the walls without wheels.

“I don’t feel like any of my art needs to or should live forever. I’m OK with it getting scraped up and broken. That piece of art had a different life than a piece that’s hanging on the wall — that’s fine too.”

To learn more about Trickster Company, visit www.tricksterskateboards.com.

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