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Sitka Native artist mixes science with art

Posted: January 6, 2013 - 1:04am
Teri Rofkar, left, talks Nov. 20, 2012 to Keet Gooshi Heen third-graders in Stephanie Peterson's class, during Native American Heritage Month in Sitka, Alaska. Rofkar sees a natural connection between art and science for Native people. (AP Photo/Daily Sitka Sentinel, James Poulson)  JAMES POULSON
JAMES POULSON
Teri Rofkar, left, talks Nov. 20, 2012 to Keet Gooshi Heen third-graders in Stephanie Peterson's class, during Native American Heritage Month in Sitka, Alaska. Rofkar sees a natural connection between art and science for Native people. (AP Photo/Daily Sitka Sentinel, James Poulson)

SITKA — Sitka artist Teri Rofkar sees a natural connection between art and science for Native people.

“When explaining the Tlingit world view, we didn’t have a word for art,” Rofkar said. “We didn’t have a word for science, either. We were investigating all the time. We had to be in tune with the world for our own survival.”

Rofkar is doing her part to combine science with traditional Northwest art forms.

The pattern on her nearly complete Raven’s Tail robe depicts strands of DNA representing the two species of mountain goat distinct to Baranof Island. And in her weaving work she uses natural science and biology in harvesting spruce roots and mountain goat wool.

Now, with the help of a $20,000 Fellowship awarded to her this month by the Native Artists & Cultures Foundation, she hopes to help Sitka young people explore the natural world around them.

Rofkar is one of 12 Native artists from around the country to win a fellowship from the Portland, Ore.-based Native Artists & Cultures Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the “revitalization, appreciation and perpetuation of Native arts and cultures.” A total of $200,000 was given out to artists this year.

“It is our mission to provide support and to nurture the creativity of this country’s Native artists,” foundation President and CEO T. Lulani Arquette said in a news announcement. “We congratulate the 2013 fellows for inspiring their communities, for their vision, their innovation, and for bringing the creative spirit of Native peoples to the world.”

Rofkar was presented with her award Dec. 11 in Portland, where she was introducing her “continuum” robe to the Portland Art Museum. The museum acquired the woven robe for its collection, she said today.

While there, she was given the rare opportunity to handle and closely examine rare Tlingit artifacts - including a Chilkat woven tunic and spruce root basket - in the museum’s extensive collection.

In her 25 years as a textile artist and weaver, Rofkar has won national grants and awards including the Buffet Award for Indigenous Leadership, the Creative Capital project award, the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship Award and the United States Artist Fellowship. Her work has been displayed at the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution, and the Penn Museum at University of Pennsylvania, among others.

She said in her grant application that she would like to help raise Native art to a new level of prominence: “seamless intelligence that is a functional record of math, sciences and aesthetics that encompass a world view.”

“I am using weaving and my relationship with Southeast Alaska as a Raven from the Tlingit, but if the information is presented well, it would be hard not to recognize the same intelligence in tribal art across the nation,” she said.

Rofkar said she has a growing interest in the connection between art and science in the Native world, which she hopes to incorporate into her uses of the grant funding.

In her application for the fellowship she said, “ ... with the help of oral stories, ancient baskets and robes in museums around the world, I have challenged myself to follow the leadership of embedded science and math that I see in these old ones residing in the collections of Tlingit weavings.”

She quoted her sister, Shelly Laws: “We wrote on everything.”

Rofkar added: “ ... with our designs and bold imagery, whether it was totemic form line or geometric bands of design, paired with the oral history a depth of knowledge comes to light. I would like to reveal these relationships by publishing a paper with my present all-mountain goat Raven’s Tail robe as an example of the knowledge embedded in the arts, in the past and in the art being produced today.”

Her application for the fellowship sought funds to complete weaving the mountain goat Raven’s Tail robe; to work with an education consultant to create an indigenous science curriculum based on the processes of creation, from gathering to weaving; to publish research findings highlighting the science embedded within Tlingit practice; and to present her robe at the next Northern Wild Sheep and Goat conference.

Rofkar finished the robe - using goat wool collected over 17 and a half years - last week.

“I still have to add the proteins and amino acids,” she added, referring to tiny beads yet to be sewn into the design.

Although the robe is done - after 900 hours of work - the grant is unrestricted, and Rofkar plans to start focusing on the education goals she has for the funds. She was entranced by a portable XR florescence machine introduced to her at the Museums Alaska and Alaska State Museums conference held here this past October. The handheld tool measures minerals in museum artifacts without harming them, but can also be used in nature as well, Rofkar said.

She said she sees a number of possibilities for using the new grant from the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation to take kids from the Sitka Native Education Program out into the woods, on the water and into the mountains to explore the different mineral content of Native foods from urban versus rural areas, and other flora and fauna.

“I want to be able to share it with kids,” Rofkar said.

She said she would not describe herself as curious when she was a child. But as an adult, she said, she has become increasingly inquisitive about science, and its connection with Native art.

“I will bring young people into my curiosity with this grant,” Rofkar said.

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