A historical photograph of Amos Wallace dominated Page 2 of the print edition in this past Sunday’s newspaper. It was part of the “Century of The Empire” series celebrating Juneau’s rich history. The caption beside it says very little. Meanwhile, the rest of the paper was filled with current news stories which will become pieces of tomorrow’s local, state and national history. Let’s take another look at Wallace’s photo though because it’s worth much more than the proverbial thousand words. For none of those larger histories can exist without our individual biographies.
Amos Wallace was just a young child when his image was captured on film during Juneau’s 4th of July parade. Apparently the year the photograph was taken isn’t known but the caption states it was in the 1920s. He’s dressed in traditional Tlingit clothing. In one hand he has a small American flag and another is mounted to a sign that reads “Original American.” He’s not smiling. His eyes are intensely focused yet still reveal youthful innocence.
What we can’t see is what he was thinking about at that very moment. But even though the picture may have been taken about the time Wallace began carving, it’s safe to assume that the young lad wasn’t contemplating becoming a master carver whose work would be on display at the Smithsonian Institute and other museums across the county.
Wallace passed away in 2004. This past July Brian Wallace donated his father’s collection of drawings and sketches to the Sealaska Heritage Institute. They will be preserved in the soon to be built Walter Soboleff Center. Not all the drawings are complete. The younger Wallace explained that some were merely “snippets of ideas.”
Of course all art begins as an idea. Some lead to masterpieces while others find their home in perpetual obscurity. Some “snippets” remain forever hidden. In any case, they all originate in the artist’s imagination. Or do they?
The question applies to much more than the visual arts. Musicians, novelists, poets, and inventors too are blessed with a form of creative energy. Each has likely experienced a guiding sense that science can’t explain. The ancient Greeks would have credited a muse as the source of their inspiration. For the Romans it was the genius, their word for the divine nature present in every individual.
If we follow Amos Wallace’s story, we’ll recognize that each chapter of his life as an artist was built on a foundation of earlier carvings. Yet he had no way of knowing that almost halfway through his life those efforts would place him a New York where, in front of thousands of people, he’d carve a 14-foot totem pole that would ultimately expose his work to the larger world. Until he got that break, he had to trust whatever inspired him to keep creating new pieces.
Each of our lives follows a similar trajectory. We don’t know where its leading and we’ll never be able to define the significance of our earlier experiences until some later time. So we could imagine life as a novel in which we’re the main character. If we treat our biography as a form of art, then, like Wallace, we have to begin with an idea of who we are and stay true to the divine nature of our personal genius. The muse guiding our biography could then build upon the chapters we’ve already lived to help us approach our greatest potential.
No, this isn’t historical biography in the sense we’re taught. The characters of those stories range from the presidents we’ve elected to Hollywood celebrities. But as individuals they matter less than the people they serve because without us they’d be insignificant. In that regard, it’s the richness of our personal histories that gives meaning to their fame.
If life is sacred, then each of our life stories must be too. But to find the meaning in the events which shape our ultimate destiny, we first have to believe in the power of story. The more we do, the more powerful our experiences might be. And maybe, like Amos Wallace, we’ll become the artist and curator of a unique biography that takes us well beyond the dreams of our innocent youth.
• Moniak is a Juneau resident.