A major art auction will take place in Juneau in a couple weeks, bringing together work from some of the biggest names in Northwest Coast art. Organized by Sealaska Heritage Institute as a fundraiser for the Walter Soboleff Center, currently under construction on Front Street, the Tináa Art Auction is an early manifestation of what SHI hopes to achieve through the Soboleff Center — establish Juneau as a center of Northwest Coast art in the region, and celebrate the vitality of the genre as a whole.
SHI Media and Publications Associate Christy Eriksen, who has been helping to organize the auction, said the event is an important one for those who appreciate the art and artists of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
“This is the first time an auction of this caliber for Northwest Coast art has occurred in this town, let alone this region,” Eriksen said. “So it’s just really exciting to be breaking ground in that way.”
The art auction and gala, scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 1 at Centennial Hall, will feature work from internationally recognized master artists including Haida/Tlingit artist Robert Davidson, Tlingit artist Nathan Jackson and Tsimshian artist David Boxley, among many others. A total of 30 artists will be represented, some of whom will be in attendance.
The title of the auction, Tináa, is a Tlingit word that refers to a traditional copper shield representing wealth and trade.
Eriksen, who has been working on the project with SHI for a year and a half, said the quality of the work that has been coming in for the auction has amazed the SHI staff.
“It’s been like an all-year Christmas — not just the gifts we were getting but the size and value of those gifts. ... I think as an organization we’re just really humbled by the generosity (of the artists) and by the work that’s been given to us — not just the art, but everything that people put into it,” she said.
Artists working in a wide variety of mediums were invited by a committee to donate items for the auction, which will be conducted in both silent and live formats. Eriksen said many of the artists featured in the show have honored Dr. Walter Soboleff through their donation to the building project that bears his name, but also more personally, through thematic elements in their artwork.
For example, Davidson’s large red and black painting “Greatest Echo,” an abstract design that incorporates elements of traditional formline, honors Soboleff through its title and composition, which he chose because “Dr. Soboleff echoed the past to bring it to the present,” according to a description of the work written by Museum of the North Director Aldona Jonaitis for the auction’s catalogue.
Soboleff, a highly influential Tlingit elder and spiritual leader, died in May 2011 at age 102.
Another piece that honors Soboleff directly is Haida artist Zachary Knapp’s “Raven Dog Salmon Egg” tináa (a wearable copper shield), which reflects Soboleff’s moiety — Raven (Yéil) — and clan, dog salmon (L’eeneidí), as well as the idea of the birth of the new building through the image of eggs.
Tlingit artist Preston Singletary’s “Copper Totem,” made of blown and sandcarved glass, also incorporates a tináa, a symbol of “the future vision of the Soboleff Center, the wealth of Tlingit traditions and the ongoing vitality of aboriginal artistic creativity,” according to Jonaitis’ written description.
In addition to these pieces, work created specifically for the auction includes a large-scale bentwood chest made by David Boxley and his son, Zach. The chest is an example of one of the auction’s more traditional Northwest Coast pieces, said SHI Arts Specialist Shaadoo’tlaa Tinaa’yeil Gunaaxoo’Kwaan.
“The box itself is one of the oldest traditions,” she said. “We used it as a storage box — you could have so much dried fish in there, or your regalia — and today it’s not just a beautiful art piece, but it still has the same functions. And the design itself ... hasn’t been altered like some of the contemporary styles. This is an older, classic design.”
The three-foot wide bentwood chest, which features a triple row of operculum shell across the front of the lid, was the first items promised to the auction, Eriksen said, signalling an exciting beginning to the process of collecting artwork for the event.
“That was actually our very first donation,” Eriksen said. “It was so uplifting, our very first donation was going to be this $30,000 chest.”
And then there’s the “flying” canoe.
Yakutat carver Fred Bemis has donated a 14-foot canoe, one of only two he has ever made, to the auction, a work that took him two years to complete.
“It’s an amazing 14-foot canoe, a Yakutat style, which is, again, something you’re not going to be able to bump into — it’s so rare,” Shaadoo’tlaa said.
Bemis, who carved the canoe despite the fact that he suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome, recently finished the piece, and, having missed the opportunity to send it on the barge in December, was faced with the challenge of getting it to Juneau in time for the auction. After SHI put out an appeal for help, Wings of Alaska stepped in.
“Wings has graciously donated a rescue mission to fly to Yakutat and pick up the canoe,” Eriksen said. “They said they practiced with a kayak to see if it would fit. So as soon as weather lifts up, we’re going to go. And it will be the first canoe of this kind that flew,” she laughed.
Shaadoo’tlaa said the image of a flying canoe emphasizes the special nature of this event, as well as “the love and the passion that Fred Bemis has for Dr. Walter Soboleff.”
Another traditional work that will be in the auction is a headband by renowned weaver Delores Churchill, that features a lightning design rendered in an unusual shade of green that Shaadoo’tlaa said was achieved with copper dye.
On the contemporary end of the scale is Da-ka-xeen Mehner’s “Mending the Drum,” in which the Fairbanks-based Tlingit/N’ishga artist has literally pushed the familiar drum form outward by incorporating his own profile into the circle of hide, and Tlingit/Aleut artist Nicholas Galanin’s book portrait, from his “What Have We Become” series. When opened, the book reveals a stack of blank pages that have been meticulously cut to reflect the shape of Galanin’s face, creating kind of “self portrait” in the negative space.
A third contemporary work is a stretched walrus gut piece by Inupiaq and Athabascan artist Sonya Kelliher-Combs that Eriksen said incorporates themes of family.
Other dramatic pieces include a red cedar killer whale helmet, “Xéegaa Kéet,” carved by Hoonah artist Duane Bosch, an adopted member of the Wooshkeetaan clan, and Scott Jensen’s “Speaking of Frog,” a carved mask with horsehair and feathers that Shaadoo’tlaa said incorporates both Salish and Tlingit design elements.
Shaadoo’tlaa said Bosch’s helmet, like all the other works in the show, does not reflect a particular clan affiliation and is therefore open to any owner, Native or non-Native.
In the wearable art category is a beaded collar created by Tlingit weaver Chloe French, with a design based on Sitka petroglyphs, and a pair of earrings by Juneau’s Rico Worl.
Other local artists included in the show are Archie Cavanaugh, who donated a carved yellow cedar raven paddle, Chilkat weaver Clarissa Rizal, who donated two of her paintings, and Rizal’s apprentice, Ricky Tagaban, who donated a Chilkat weaving.
Tagaban will also have a piece in the fashion show, scheduled as part of the gala on Feb. 1.
Shaadoo’tlaa said the fashion show features mostly contemporary works.
“Ricky Tagaban is making a bustier. And we have an artist who is working with salmon skin and halibut skin — there’s a whole dress made out of salmon skin — it’s gorgeous, and very contemporary,” Shaadoo’tlaa said.
The fashion show and the auction are open only to attendees of the auction, and there will be no public exhibit or display of the works that have been donated other than at the event, which can accommodate about 300 people.
“It feels a tiny bit like a best kept secret,” Eriksen said. “We have all this extraordinary art, some from artists who have 10-year waiting lists, and we have this contemporary fashion show, and it’s all happening one night only, in the middle of winter, in a small town in Alaska. So if you have any interest, if you’ve learned about this, it would be such a treasure trove to come out and visit and be a part of it, and walk away with some really amazing pieces.”
In planning the event, Eriksen worked closely with representatives from the Sante Fe Indian Market, an annual event held since 1922 that draws more than 150,000 people to Sante Fe every August. Eriksen and SHI Art Director Rico Worl have attended the Sante Fe market for the past two years, the first time as attendees and last year as volunteers. Eriksen said the Santa Fe market organizers have, in turn, been studying SHI’s Celebration, as a great example of a noncommercial cultural gathering.
“Our partnership has been built on them wanting to study Celebration and learn more about how we have this incredible cultural event that is less commerce-focused ... and we wanted to study Santa Fe and learn because they have this incredible art market and gala that brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars and really helps sustain their economy, using art as one of the strengths of their city. So we’re learning from each other.”
SHI expects to make the auction a recurring event though probably not an annual one.
General tickets for the Tináa Art Auction are $150 per person, and tables of 10 are available for groups; contact Eriksen for pricing.
Auction items range in price from $100 to $55,000.
The event will be held the first Saturday in February at Centennial Hall beginning at 5:30 p.m. with the silent auction. The dinner, fashion show and live auction begin at 6:30 p.m. Abstentee bidding will be an option for those who can’t make it to Juneau.
The Walter Soboleff Center will house an array of art programs, including artist-in-residencies, exhibit space, artist demonstrations and programs to perpetuate Northwest Coast arts. To read more about the construction of the Soboleff Center, see page A1.
For more information on the auction, visit http://www.sealaskaheritage.org/programs/Art/TinaaArtAuction.html and http://www.tinaa.bigcartel.com.