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Ketchikan artist explores new twist on Native art

Stron Softi blends contemporary style, ancient tradition

Posted: Thursday, April 16, 2009

Ketchikan-based artist Stron Softi tries to create work that can speak beyond itself.

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Courtesy Of Stron Softi
Courtesy Of Stron Softi

"For me, if I'm viewing something, I guess whatever I would consider good art is something that can make me think about something else other than just the material itself," he said.

Softi has a solo exhibit at the Alaska State Museum titled "Softipac" that he says attempts to explore the parameters binding what is considered acceptable Northwest Coast art. Trained in traditional Tlingit carving techniques, Softi has combined carving, animal hides, digital photography, cast resin materials and other techniques to help pose new questions about what contemporary Alaska Native art is.

"I am someone who is Native, but it seems to me a lot of so-called 'Native art' is trying to struggle between contemporary or traditional, which I confess has been an issue for me," he said.

The exhibit closes on April 18. It is running in conjunction with a solo ceramics exhibit by Jeremy Kane, which also closes Saturday.

Stron Softi, which is the artist name of 32-year-old Stephen Jackson, is the son of renowned Tlingit carver Nathan Jackson. He said he goes back and forth between what people might consider traditional and nontraditional Native art. Softi said he decided it would be fun to pursue art under a pseudonym so people might not associate him as someone they already knew or someone they expected to be working from a certain artistic viewpoint.

"I don't know if I can necessarily say what is traditional or not," he said. "The way I have looked at historically traditional works is through a somewhat revisionist lens. So I think that some of the things I'm trying to do is to investigate or reexamine what is considered traditional."

An example, he said, is Northwest Coast form line design. Some people assert that what makes a piece of form line design "traditional" is having closed, contained and clean ovoids.

"In a lot of older pieces, they still hold power within them without being the cleanest objects or even looking finished," Softi said. "So I'm trying to inject some of my revisionist tendency into the work that I'm doing now."

One of the pieces in the "Softipac" exhibit is of a partially completed totem pole, leaning against the wall and roped off as if in the process of still being carved. Softi, who was commissioned at age 18 to carve a totem pole at the Mount Roberts Tramway, said he became curious during carving projects about what makes a piece of art considered finished.

It also comments on how it has become commonplace for Tlingit carvers to conduct their work on site in front of tourists, which made him question whether the carving process or the finished product held more value. And it has classical roots as well, Softi said, pointing out that Michelangelo had a number of sculptures that were not completed and are still looked upon as art.

"I hope that it asks questions, or that it will pose questions," he said.

Softi said he also likes to take on ownership issues within his art.

"I was kind of interested in issues of ownership or what is art, what is not quite art," he said. "Like what does it take to make a piece of art or for people to consider something a piece of art? Is it how well it is manufactured? That it's manufactured by hand versus machine? Does it look finished?"

One of his pieces in the exhibit, "insignificantly altered," is basically black bear pelts that have been stapled to the wall in a loosely arranged pattern. He said he was interested in the laws limiting Alaska Natives from selling black bear pelts to non-Natives.

"For them to sell it to a so-called 'white person,' they have to have it significantly altered by traditional means, so the stipulations of that authentic Native handicraft, the language is kind of vague," he said. "So what is 'significantly altered?'"

Softi said the piece questions whether a "quasi-contemporary form line design" made from a bear pelt stapled onto a wall can be considered so-called fine art, and whether time and manual labor are more legitimate than the conceptual ends.

"Given the trajectory of art history, I could say that anything is art," he said. "And if somebody else says that whatever they do is art, then I kind of have to accept that. Whether or not I still think about it is another thing. You could say anything is art, but whether or not it holds any value to you or anyone, kind of depends on a lot of things."

Softi has been generating discussion with his work. Along with the solo show at the state museum, last year he was awarded the top prize in the biennial All Alaska Juried Art Exhibition for one of his photographic prints.

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.



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