$100,000 grant to bring Native art classes to Juneau prisoners

National Endowment for the Arts award allows Sealaska Heritage Institute to train inmates in Native art

Sealaska Heritage Institute has sponsored art classes in the Juneau prison as funding allows, including two multi-day art workshops with formline design artist David A. Boxley and carver Wayne Price at Lemon Creek Correctional Center last year.


Now, a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts Our Town program will allow the regional Native nonprofit to continue hiring master artists to teach Native art classes in prison.

“We have this vision of creating Juneau as the Northwest Coast art capital that would support our region,” SHI President Rosita Worl said.

In order to do that, she said there needs to be more artists. SHI has been training artists through programs in schools and various Southeast communities.

“We know we have, unfortunately, a large population concentrated at Lemon Creek Correctional Center. I know a lot of them want to learn Northwest Coast art, so we want to be able to work with them and help them to have a source of income, be able to sustain themselves once they leave incarceration,” Worl said.

Through the grant money, SHI will also partner with Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority to hold art classes as people transition from prison into the community.

SHI plans to incorporate business skills in the art classes.

“People can earn a good income from artwork, but a lot of them don’t now how to maintain books or do taxes,” Worl said.

Demand for handmade Alaska Native art outweighs supply at the Sealaska Heritage Store, Worl said. Artists can earn a living from creating and selling Native art, she added, making between $35,000 to $50,000 a year.

“Many of our artists live in economically depressed communities, and so doing art is one way they can earn money and live in the village,” Worl said.

LCCC education coordinator Paul McCarthy said this is a fantastic opportunity for the inmates.

“Inmates are interested in learning traditional Alaska Native art, and they may be able to parlay that knowledge into making art on the outside and getting paid for it,” McCarthy said. “But even aside from anything that pertains to making a living, it highlights the importance of that cultural knowledge and it gives them something positive to look forward to and spend their time doing in here.”

Outside of visiting artists, McCarthy said some male inmates have access to a prison hobby shop to do art on their own, like carving, scrimshawing and painting.

“There’s a lot of art that is learned and taught among the inmates themselves,” McCarthy said.

But, he said, inmates gain more knowledge from the artists.

“I think it helps these guys feel good creating some things that other people, and themselves as well, can appreciate,” McCarthy said.

Last year, about 15 male inmates participated in each SHI art workshop. Worl said the opportunity doesn’t have to be exclusive to men.

“If we have female inmates who want to do these things, we will certainly try to meet that desire,” she said.

• Contact reporter Lisa Phu at 523-2246 or lisa.phu@juneauempire.com.

Related stories:

Tsimshian artist David Boxley teaches formline at Juneau jail

David Boxley talks Native, Tsimshian art revival

Master carver Wayne Price urges young artists to do their formline 'homework'


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