Creative cooperation

Posted: Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Glory Hole was abuzz with activity last Friday morning. In addition to the usual comings and goings at the downtown shelter, an art project was underway in the main dining room, claiming a whole row of tables. Well-known Tlingit artist Rick Beasely stood at the center of a group of men, steering the process of creating a series of Tlingit wall paintings that will eventually hang in the room.

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Libby Sterling / Juneau Empire
Libby Sterling / Juneau Empire

The atmosphere was both relaxed and intensely focused. Two men worked on one partially painted panel raised on an easel, and two more leaned over a second laid out on a table. Beasley circulated around, commenting quietly, making sure things were going according to plan. His assessment? All was going well.

“These guys are real good,” he said, smiling.

A completed panel, Beasley’s prototype, rested against the wall, showing what the finished product should look like. Like most Northwest Coast art, the completed panel was dauntingly complex and precise, but Beasley made the process manageable for the volunteers by breaking each step down into approachable pieces.

Beasley, who once led a group of 30 workers in a similar project, said one of the keys to success was for him to do as much as he could in advance. In this case, preparation included the creation of intricate, heavy paper stencils.

“I put most of my time into getting this part done,” he said. “I cut out everything beforehand, then it goes real fast.”

Volunteers taped the stencils down on the wood and then traced the open spaces with pencil. Symmetry was achieved by flipping the stencil across a center line, and tracing it again. Next some of the pencil marks were outlined with thin strips of tape that followed the curves and lines precisely, delineating the areas where each color would go. Once taping was complete, painting could begin — first a base layer to ensure the paint went on smoothly, and then the distinctive light blue-green, red and black colors of traditional Tlingit art.

The design, created by Beasley specifically for this project, is traditional in form, but innovative in subject. Two rocks flank a tall piece of seaweed, which Beasley said symbolizes the idea of a life-sustaining place of respite. If your boat sank and you were swimming for shore, a rock would provide a place for you to catch your breath before continuing on.

“Until one can gain their second breath and swim that extra distance to shore, a rock in the water can be a lifeline. And that is what the Glory Hole represents — a temporary lifeline,” Beasley said.

One volunteer worker, Bill Sewell, was carefully erasing pencil lines on one of the partially painted panels. He said was enjoying the experience and the close study of the form.

“I’d love to have a whole room like this,” he said. “All four walls.”

Beside him, another man named Rick R. worked on the taping, making sure the tiny strips of blue masking tape closely followed the pencil lines. Two more men worked on the unpainted panel, tracing the stencils on to the board. All four had worked for five hours the previous day, and had gotten into a productive rhythm.

“We’re becoming a real team,” Sewell said.

Ray Phelps, tracing a stencil on the unpainted panel, said he appreciated the change from his normal routine.

“It’s something different — we’re learning,” he said.

Volunteers from Juneau Youth Services were scheduled to help work on the panels this week.

Beasley and his twin brother, Mick, are both highly respected Tlingit artists. The pair, who are proficient in many mediums, used to have a gallery downtown, and now work out of their studio on North Douglas Highway.

Rick Beasley, who is Raven of the Coho clan, is a lifelong carver whose work includes totem poles and culturally modified trees, as well as Tlingit masks and jewelry.

Last year he published a series of books on Tlingit carving that detailed in text and photos the step-by-step process of creating a Tlingit mask, tray and hat. The books are innovative in their approach, transferring hands-on, orally based knowledge to book form, opening up the art to those who might be far from competent teachers. The books, like the Glory Hole project, highlight not only Beasley’s artistic skill but also his generosity and willingness to share his knowledge and talent with others.

Glory Hole Executive Director Mariya Lovishchuk said she was thrilled to get Beasley to head up the project, in part because of his positive presence at the shelter.

“When he came in, a bunch of folks knew him and his family ... and watching that dynamic with the patrons and also seeing some of his work made me think he would be the perfect person.”

Lovishchuk was able to move forward with the project after receiving a grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum. She said she didn’t have any preconceived ideas about what the art should look like, leaving the creative decisions in Beasley’s hands. She said she could soon tell that he was giving the design a lot of thought.

“He would call me and talk about concepts he had, and it was really cool to hear about how he sees this place, from his own perspective,” she said.

Lovishchuk said the project has created a lot of excitement at the Glory Hole, and she can’t wait to share the completed work with everyone in the community. A public opening is planned for February.

“This going to be the coolest piece of art downtown,” she said.

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