From tradition to innovation and back again

Up-and-coming young artist takes on his first Chilkat blanket
Ricky Tagaban's Chilkat halter top was part of the Tináa Art Auction fashion show Saturday at Centennial Hall. The show also showcased work by Janice Jackson, Kandi McGilton, Brenda Lee Asp, Joel Isaak, Marcus J Gho, Shaadoo'tlaa Gunaaxoo'Kwaan and Louise Kadinger.

Ricky Tagaban’s streetwear has been featured on runways in Anchorage and Juneau, in the pages of First Alaskans Magazine and on the website of Alaska Dispatch. His silkscreened T-shirts and hoodies featuring modern interpretations of traditional Tlingit formline designs grew out of a passion for printmaking, begun at the University of Alaska Southeast a few years ago, and tapped a growing trend in Alaskan fashion.


Lately though, he’s left the street for the quiet of his loom, carving out time to work on a project that highlights the traditional side of his output as a young Tlingit artist: he’s weaving a Chilkat blanket, baby size, on a commission for his sister-in-law to be worn at this year’s Celebration. The project is also paving the way for his next piece, a full-size Chilkat robe he will weave for his father’s clan.

“I’m starting with a baby blanket so I can practice on a slightly smaller scale, even though it’s the biggest project I’ve ever done,” he said.

He’s been able to weave full-time thanks to a Rasmuson Individual Artist Award he received last May, and has been working alongside Lily Hope, the daughter of his Chilkat weaving mentor, Clarissa Rizal. Like those two women, he has fully embraced the traditions of the craft, up to the point of spinning the warp himself.

“I spin the wool every morning — it’s like my morning mediation,” he said.

Tagaban’s Chilkat weavings were featured this past weekend at the Tináa art auction and gala at Centennial Hall; one for the fashion show and one for the silent auction. The piece he created for the runway was a Chilkat woven halter top, and for the auction he donated a small weaving. He also modeled a halibut skin motorcycle jacket created by Joel Isaak on the runway.

Tagaban began immersing himself in traditional Tlingit art while still in middle school, where he learned to make a button blanket with Della Cheney. Not long after that he began experimenting with ways to tweak the traditional forms. In high school, for the Juneau-Douglas High School’s Trashin’ Fashion show, he created a Ravenstail weaving out of garbage bags.

“Trashin’ Fashion was my first time making a modern-looking garment that references traditional textiles or designs,” he said.

The next year he wove another piece out of dryer sheets. He also took part in the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council’s Wearable Art show.

After graduation, he began taking classes at UAS, printmaking among them. He was immersed in several different art forms when his brother Joe died suddenly, throwing everything in his life off track. He scaled back on his art and almost stopped going to school.

‘When my brother passed away, the only classes I kept going to were Tlingit language and printmaking,” he said.

The energy he put toward printmaking helped him get through the months following his brother’s death.

“I spent hundreds of hours printing on fabric and ripping it, and that repetitive motion started the healing process for me,” he said.

Since then his print designs have appeared in fashion shows around the state, such as the Alaska Native Arts Foundation‘s “Wear Art Thou” show in Anchorage in November (the title reflects the idea of an “indigenous renaissance”), and the ANAF’s “The Water Collection” in September. Though he’s put printmaking to the side for now to focus on weaving, he has plans to go back to it.

Tagaban, who also leads a class in Tlingit beadwork at the Canvas Community Art Studio and Gallery, said he believes Native fashion design is on its way up.

“I think we’re right on the brink of Native fashion — not Native-inspired fashion, but Native fashion — where it’s going to be right up there on the global stage,” he said.


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