How many people does it take to lift a 600-pound, six-foot Tlingit warrior? At least six. And if that warrior happens to be made of glass? As many as you can find.
Last week in the clan house (Shuká Hít) of the Walter Soboleff Building, a small group of volunteers helped Tlingit artist Preston Singletary carefully move his latest art pieces – two house posts that depict life-size Tlingit warriors – into their permanent positions on either side of the artist’s glass clan house screen. On the left stands an Eagle warrior, made of a single piece of amber colored glass, and on the right stands a Raven, rendered in dark steel gray.
The warriors’ placement in the clan house marks the final step in a series of art installations commissioned by Sealaska Heritage Institute for the Soboleff Building. Haida artist Robert Davidson’s red metal panels were installed in April, Singletary’s glass screen and Tsimshian artist David Boxley’s cedar clan house front were unveiled in May, and the house posts went in last week. The delay in their arrival stemmed in part from technical issues unique to the artist’s chosen medium.
”It took longer than I anticipated in terms of some of the technicalities,” Seattle-based artist Singletary said as he was preparing for the Sept. 3 installations. “Larger pieces of glass are more difficult to cast. The larger you go in scale the more challenging it is to cool the glass to room temperature, because the glass is really sensitive when it goes from liquid to a solid -- it has to cool very slowly.”
“Glass is basically an insulating material so the exterior is cooling but the core is still hot," he continued. "That’s why you have to let it stabilize, equalize in temperature then drop it slowly. If you were to cool it too quickly you could get a fracture in the piece because it creates stress within the glass.”
Though modern in medium, house posts are an art form for which the Tlingit have long been well-known. The pieces are also linked to traditional house posts in that they were initially carved in wood; if you look closely at the finished pieces, you can see the pattern of the original adze marks which were imprinted on the glass when the pieces were cast.
Singletary said the process involved several molds. A cast was made of the wooden carving, which was used to make a rubber positive. Then a plaster cast of the rubber was used to form the glass in the kiln.
“(The glass) is carefully lowered into the mold and you turn the kiln on and it melts into the plaster form,” Singletary said. “Then the plaster is divested from the glass piece, and cleaned up and polished ... The edges have been given a pretty high polish to allow light to come in from different angles.”
From a distance, the Raven warrior looks black, almost as if it could be made of argillite, a type of soft black stone used primarily by Haida artists; closer viewing shows that the Raven, like the Eagle, is translucent, and has a faint bluish tinge.
“I thought that was befitting the raven,” Singletary said of the color.
The warriors are shown in traditional Tlingit slat armor, with spears and carved wooden helmets with formline designs. SHI requested that warriors be incorporated into the design of the clan house because they “symbolize the protectors of our land and culture,” according to a previous SHI release, and highlight the fact that Northwest Coast Native people in this region were "formidable not only in actual battle, but in political, legal and educational arenas."
Singletary’s roots in Southeast can be traced back to his great grandmother, who lived in Sitka and taught him traditional Tlingit ways. He began working with glass in the Seattle area in 1982, later traveling to Europe to learn from masters in Venice and Sweden. In 1987, he began experimenting with ways to apply the European techniques to explore traditional Northwest Coast design. His work is held in museum collections including The British Museum in London, The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, The Seattle Art Museum, the Heard Museum in Phoenix, and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
The house posts are among the largest pieces Singletary has done. His glass house screen, which stands behind the two posts, is the third screen he has done and his largest to date. Standing 17 feet wide and 12 feet high, it is also believed to be the largest glass screen in the world. The screen shows a stylized Northwest Coast design and is made of amber and black sandblasted glass, the same colors as the house posts. The contrasting colors highlight the idea of balance, an important cultural value.
Artwork for the Soboleff building was funded in part by an anonymous donor, according to the SHI release. Singletary’s piece was also supported through an ArtPlaceAmerica grant.
Read more about the art at the Soboleff Building here: http://juneauempire.com/art/2015-05-20/monumental-art-reflects-buldings-...