Students drawn to Native art class

Sessions underline the balance in Northwest art

Posted: Monday, March 01, 2004

Neiko Christopher See looked at the paddle he was sanding in Kathleen Wiest's art class at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School. He was holding an unfinished smaller version of a Tlingit canoe paddle, and wondered what the next step would be.

"Just a little tiny bit closer. You want symmetry," Wiest told See on Friday, examining both sides of his paddle, which should be gently mounded. "You know what symmetry is - the same on both sides. Everything you do in Northwest art is based on balance."

This is the second year for Wiest's course in Native art. Last year, in a pilot program, she had one section of students. This year there are 65 students spread over three sections. Many are Natives.

In the half-year elective course, students take Native visual arts for one quarter, followed by a quarter of Tlingit-language instruction. A $1,500 grant pays for most of the art materials, but the school collects a $10 fee from families that can afford it.

"I'm getting kids to class that don't generally come to class," Wiest said. "Attendance is good. I have very few absentees in these classes."

As their main project, students generally carve a Tlingit paddle or make Athabascan beaded moccasins. Later, they will have the chance to make copper jewelry or plaques.

The paddle makers use rasps to create the basic shape from a plank of yellow cedar. Rasps are safer than planes, with their exposed blades. Students sand the paddles and paint, or sometimes carve, designs on them.

Wiest has created Mylar templates so students can trace designs onto wood. Her designs are generically Northwest style, so that students don't use a design that belongs to a clan they don't belong to.

"We learn a lot about the etiquette, you might say, of the art," Wiest said.

Native cultural specialist Greg Brown often is in the classroom. They have taught the students about the use of primary colors and primary, secondary and tertiary form lines in Northwest Native art. Students learn the subtle differences in style between Alaska and British Columbia artists.

On Friday, in a noisy class of 30 students with a lot of boys and what Wiest called "boy energy," Steven Lott, a seventh-grader, asked her if she could help him make a smaller paddle. His own paddle was the smallest in the room and so highly polished it looked like plastic.

"This is beautiful. You need to put design work on this," Wiest told Lott and suggested he could use the photocopier to shrink a design to fit his paddle.

"It's taking me so long because I have the only big paddle," seventh-grader Michael Chilton, pushing the rasp over his paddle, told a visitor.

Michael said his father, Doug Chilton, makes gold and silver bracelets, and they have made full-size wooden paddles for a Native canoe team.

"For one thing, I like doing it because it is fun," he said. "You get to take a blank piece of wood and see it come into what people way back then used to do."

It takes a lot of practice to become a good carver, Michael said. He learned from his father, but he said he was glad to take the class.

"Since it's during school I don't have to wait till after school," Michael pointed out, as a small pile of tiny shavings grew on the desk and speckled his black T-shirt.

He periodically held the paddle upright between his hands, feeling the mounded shape emerging.

Neiko, an eighth-grader, eyed the paddle he was working with a rasp and wondered if he was getting it right.

"No, I think you're going against the grain," seventh-grader Jordan Curbow advised.

Jordan said his grandfather, Ray Watkins, has been teaching him how to carve, "keeping the tradition alive."

"You've got to be patient," he said. "You got to be pretty strong, too, to cut through wood. A good, steady hand helps the fine artist, too."

In another section later that day, eighth-grader Danielle McMichael and sixth-grader Haley Nelson, bent to their tasks, were patiently sewing baby-size moccasins made of moose hide and exchanging conversation with the top of each other's head.

They already had sewn their beaded designs for the top of the moccasins. Danielle made a rainbow emerging from a cloud, and Haley made a blueberry flower.

Danielle was attaching her beaded piece to the top, and Haley was sewing a strip of rabbit fur around the opening of her moccasins.

"You have to sew it inside out," Haley advised Danielle.

"Oh, I sewed it the wrong way," Danielle said. "Oh well, I'll just cut it."

Haley said she has sewn beads before, but not moccasins.

"It's kind of cool, sewing," she said.

"It's kind of hard," Danielle said.

"There's a lot of rules you need to follow," Haley said of Native art. "If you follow them, it's kind of easy." Then she thought for a moment. "But still, it's kind of hard."

Soon Haley discovered that she was supposed to sew the rabbit fur to the inner lining as well as the moose hide. She began to cut the stitches and start over.

As conversation will, it turned to dead pets, the calamities that befall pets in relation to siblings and the storage of dead pets in freezers just in case anyone wants to bury them later.

A visitor asked if he could interrupt.

"Please do," Danielle said.

So, do they know any actual babies that will use the moccasins?

"Yes!" Haley said, brightening. "I'm giving mine to a baby," the new son of Rep. Mary Kapsner, who knows Haley's mother.

Danielle said she's baby-sitting for someone who's pregnant, so that's all set.

• Eric Fry can be reached at

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