Tommy Joseph’s Tlingit war helmets alone could have made up an entire art exhibit: intricately carved out of wood, then painted or covered with fur, and embellished with abalone, copper or oppercula shell, the helmets are true pieces of wearable art. Carved in the style of their predecessors — and including elements a viewer can’t see, such as a divet for the wearer’s nose on the inside and a mouth piece — the helmets were the first piece of Tlingit armor Joseph carved, back in 2004, when he was inspired by the 200th anniversary of the Battles of 1804 in Sitka, where he lives. After he made one, he just kept going.
“It’s so much fun to start with a raw piece of wood, green fresh wood, and just start busting out a helmet,” Joseph said after a lecture at the state museum April 6. “In 2004 I made my first one, and had such a great time doing that I made another one, and another one.”
But he didn’t stop at the helmets. After carving about 30 helmets, he began researching other elements of traditional Tlingit armor — such as the wooden collars worn under the helmet, body armor and leggings — and that research fed rather than satiated his curiosity.
“I looked at all the books and everything I could find related to this topic, and the more I dug in the more I wanted to know,” he said.
The Alaska State Museum is currently showing Joseph’s first exhibit of Tlingit armor, “Rainforest Warriors,” which showcases six full, life-size examples of the form. In addition to the carved and painted helmets, the mannequins also wear carved wooden collars, hide armor and leggings, some covered with slatted wood overlay bound together with miles of hand worked sinew, as well as weapons, including a yew bow strung with sinew and a jade dagger.
Many of the pieces are being shown for the first time, and the collection as a whole represents more than 8 years of work, a time frame which includes an intense period of research at museums around the world as part of a United States Artist Fellowship. In figuring out where to go, he received advice from the Alaska State Museum’s Curator of Collections Steve Henrikson, who has done extensive research on the topic himself.
Joseph ended up visiting more than 20 museums during an 11-week tour in 2009, including many of the Smithsonian Musuems in Washington, D.C., and others in Russia and Paris.
Joseph took extensive photos of the collections, some of which he showed during an April 6 lecture at the museum. The museum pieces gave the artist invaluable information about how they were made, as well as inspiring him in their designs and artistry.
“That was part of the deal, why I went to see those museum collections, so I could look at the pieces and mentally take them apart and put them back together.”
Henrikson, introducing Joseph at his lecture April 6, said though the museum has featured many traditional Tlingit artforms, they had never shown anything like Joseph’s collection of armor before, and were very excited about the opportunity to show it to the public.
“This is a great honor for us to have this exhibit,” Henrikson said.
Joseph is of the Eagle Moiety, Kaagwaantaan Clan. His other works include many full-size totem poles, including the Michio Memorial Totem Pole carved in honor of photographer Michio Hoshino in 2008. Joseph worked an as artist demonstrator at the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center in Sitka for many years, and has also done work for the National Park Service to restore and replicate historic poles in Sitka and elsewhere. He now owns his own gallery and studio, Raindance Gallery in Sitka, where he teaches carving.
Many materials are represented in the show, requiring many different techniques. The hardest thing to make, by far, Joseph said, was the slat armor, with the sinew being particularly time consuming to prepare and twine. Joseph processed the elk and deer sinew himself, making a big “birds' nest” of shredded sinew that he then twined into cordage.
“Every bit of it runs through your mouth to make it pliable so you can work it and do the twining to hold the slats together,” he said, adding that he’d spent enough time around weavers to know how to do the twining.
Slat armor was typically worn over the heavy hide armor — though on his travels Joesph also saw examples of slat armor that was hidden within two layers of hide armor.
“Your opponents wouldn’t see that, so I guess if you were stuck with a dagger they’d probably think you were invincible,” he said with a smile.
Another form of body armor he created is hide covered in Chinese coins — also historically accurate. The Tlingit traded for the Chinese coins with Russian fur traders, he said.
“The money didn’t really mean anything to the Tlingit people but, having that handy hole in the center, you were able to sew them on the hide to create this almost chain mail like armor,” he said. “They did kind of replace the wooden slat armor — it was so much quicker to make.”
In creating his pieces, Joseph stuck with traditional materials for the most part, with some exceptions. His bow is made of yew, as is traditional, but so is one of his helmets, which isn’t. Another helmet, a black raven design, is covered with brown bear fur, an idea inspired by Katlian’s helmet, but another, a white raven, features polar bear fur.
In some cases he used materials from around his home in Sitka, and in others accepted the generosity of friends; the yew wood, from Metlakatla, was given to him by friend and fellow carver Abel Ryan, and the polar bear hide was brought to him by a friend with family on Little Diomede Island.
“A buddy of mine, his cousin lives on Little Diomede, and this bear was chasing his next door neighbor across the pack ice. He shot that bear and five days later she was laying on the floor of my studio. Then I turned the bear into a bird.”
Oppercula was gathered on a beach on a visit to Haida Gwaii, after receiving permission from a village watchman.
The jade for the dagger, purchased online, was a new material for Joseph, but he used previous experience in working with stones and his determination to figure things out to guide him.
“Everything was done by hand,” he said. “Once I get the idea I figure it out by looking at it and thinking about it, and then I just go and do it.”
Joseph is already working on an idea for his next show, which, like the armor exhibit, is unusual.
“I came up with an idea that I’ve never seen, just like I’ve never seen a show like this,” he said. “I thought “I’ve got to try this.’”
As for what that is, he’s not saying.
Joseph’s show is on view at the Alaska State Museum through Oct. 12.
Paired with Kay Parker’s exhibit of Ravenstail weavings, the show may be the last in the downstairs gallery as the museum prepares to move into its new location. Steve Henrikson said the two shows represent the continuation of traditional Tlingit art forms in the work of major contemporary Alaskan artists — a fitting way to close the gallery.
“We’re going out with a bang,” Henrikson said.
To read more about Parker’s weavings, visit juneauempire.com/art/2012-03-22/earth-fire-and-fibre-opens-friday-state-museum