Tsimshian artist Boxley teaches formline at Juneau jail

A group of inmates at the Juneau jail received an incredible opportunity last week — to learn the basics of Northwest Coast art and formline design from the nation’s most renowned Tsimshian artist, David Boxley.


Sealaska Heritage Institute asked Boxley, a Metlakatla-born artist who lives in Kingston, Washington, to teach the four-day art class at Lemon Creek Correctional Center while he was in Juneau teaching evening Tsimshian language classes at SHI’s Walter Soboleff Building.

“I thought, well, what a nice new adventure,” he said of the offer. “I’ve never been inside any correctional facility before.”

Boxley said he didn’t really know what to expect when he walked into LCCC on Monday (Aug. 24). What he found came as a pleasant surprise.

“I was a little nervous when I first came, but they’re really jazzed,” he said Thursday (Aug. 27), the last day of class, of the nine inmates who participated. “They really want to learn and they’ve had a good time, and it made me feel good.”

Inside the jail’s Learning Center, a group of inmates wearing yellow jumpsuits sat around a table and practiced drawing sketches of eagles and ravens using ovoids and U-forms, the basic building blocks of traditional Northwest Coast style art.

Boxley demonstrated how to draw an eagle on a whiteboard in the front of the class.

“The first thing we’re going to do is figure out where the head’s going to go,” he said to the group. “The head is usually the largest part of the design, so put a line like that, and that’s going to be where I lay my ovoid.”

Some of the inmates had never tried their hand at it before the class, like Michael R. Jacobs, whose arms were covered in colorful tattoos and whose blond hair was neatly combed to the side.

“(I signed up) just because it was something to do, and I like art,” Jacobs, 44, said.

By Thursday, he said he had developed a newfound respect for the art style.

“I had a lot less respect for it until I came in here,” he said. “I just thought it wasn’t really sophisticated, just simple stuff. But it’s not. It’s super complex. I didn’t realize how many different versions of things that you can make with it.”

With a chuckle, Boxley said that has been a common theme: “It’s not as easy as it looks and they’re finding that out.”

Others were familiar with the art form. William A. Littlefield, a 32-year-old from Sitka, said his grandmother, Esther Littlefield, taught him how to do beadwork and to sew regalia designs and moccasins. When she passed away, he stopped.

“It took about 10 years for me to get back into it,” he said. “And then I started drawing, painting, then carving then engraving, then weaving. I’m doing a lot with this artwork.”

“And David is so amazing,” he added of the guest teacher. “He’s great, and the way he has been teaching all of us, that knowledge is hard to come by.”

Sealaska Heritage Institute sponsored the class because they wanted to help connect Alaska Native inmates with their culture and to give them a skill that can help them learn a living upon their release.

“We want our people to have an outlet that connects them to their culture and that could supplement their income when they return home,” SHI President Rosita Worl said in a prepared statement.

Paul McCarthy, the education coordinator for LCCC, said the class was a “relatively rare” opportunity for the prisoners. Sealaska has brought in guest teachers a few times before to teach basic formline design and totem pole carving.

“I think it benefits them on several levels,” he said. “They’re artistic skills, it gives them something to do that they’re interested in so they’re spending their time engaged in a positive way, and it’s also cultural immersion when people like David are in here doing these things.”

Boxley’s work has been showcased all over the United States and Europe. A totem pole he carved is on permanent display at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

He also designed a clan house front for the Walter Soboleff Building, which was unveiled during the culture center’s grand opening in May. The piece, called “Am’ala: Wil Mangaa da Ha’lidzogat,” or The Man Who Held Up The Earth, is believed to be the largest carved-and-painted Tsimshian house front in the world.

He described the entire experience as a good one.

“The guys have been very positive and trying really hard to learn something they might have thought they knew or didn’t know at all,” he said. “And it’s been fun. I think they’ve had fun, I’ve had a good time, and I looked forward to each day coming and finishing up what we were working on.”

This article first appeared in the September 2-8, 2015, edition of the Capital City Weekly.


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