Teaching formline

This week, Sealaska Heritage Institute released the results of a three-year project designed to help students learn the basics of formline -- the design elements around which most Northwest Coast Native art is built. The in-depth educational resource, designed for students in grades 5-8, was introduced to teachers from around the state Monday by Juneau School District art teacher Nancy Lehnhart during the 10th annual Basic Arts Institute at the University of Alaska Southeast on Monday.


Packaged as an “art kit,” the ready-to-use curriculum includes a textbook, a jump drive with an electronic version of the text, laminated flash cards, and a copy of “Northwest Coast Indian Art” by Bill Holm, widely considered to be one of the best books ever published about formline design. It also includes videos of SHI’s two-day formline design workshop taught by Steve Brown and a presentation by Tsimshian carvers David A. Boxley and his son, David R. Boxley, on the clan house front they made for the Walter Soboleff Building in downtown Juneau.

The term “formline,” coined by Holm, is defined by the Burke Museum as “the curving line, which tends to swell and diminish throughout a composition, that creates the outline of the chosen subject ..The stylistic elements created by formlines are u-shapes, ovoids, and s-shapes, among others.”

Though the basic shapes and relationships involved in formline design can be taught fairly quickly, mastery of formline is a lifelong process for many Northwest Coast artists, one with deep ties to cultural values. David R. Boxley said during the 2014 SHI juried art show that formline’s emphasis on harmony and balance is reflected in the philosophies and beliefs of his culture.

“Formline is a perfect visual representation and an analogy for our culture,” Boxley said. “The black and red, the balance between sizes, the flow of thin to thick to thin, the positive and negative space — the entire system is about balance. It’s beautiful.”

SHI’s kits are designed to introduce the concepts, shapes and relationships involved in formline and can be used by teachers who have little to no background, said SHI president Rosita Worl in a release. They have already been mailed to school district staff and tribal administrative staff in 10 communities.

In designing and compiling the kit, SHI collaborated with local teachers and artists as well as formline experts Nathan Jackson, Delores Churchill, Nicholas Galanin, Steve Brown and Da-ka-xeen Mehner, who make up SHI’s Native Artist Committee.

The project was led by SHI’s Kari Groven in collaboration with Steve Brown, Annie Calkins and Nancy Lehnhart, and is part of the Jinéit Art Academy, one of SHI’s initiatives to make Juneau the Northwest Coast art capital.

To read a previous Empire stories about formline and how it relates to culture, visit http://juneauempire.com/art/2015-05-20/northwest-coast-art-window-culture and http://juneauempire.com/art/2014-06-19/master-carver-says-young-artists-...


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