Native art shines at Ninth Annual Arts and Crafts Fair

Posted: Sunday, December 04, 2005

Chilkat blanket weaver Anna Brown Ehlers understands the true meaning of patience.

One of several artists at the Ninth Annual Arts and Crafts Fair at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, Brown Ehlers spent Saturday putting the finishing touches on a commissioned blanket that has taken her a year and a half to complete.

"For one blanket it takes three months to prepare all the material until it goes on the loom," she said.

Her artwork is a family affair. She collects strips of yellow cedar bark with her three children from the south side of trees in Ketchikan and Sitka. After soaking it in water and cutting it into linguini-like strips, they begin to turn it into warp, which is similar to yarn, by rolling it with mountain goat and sheep wool on their knees.

"It takes a lot to prepare all the materials. I've been really lucky in my life that my children help me," Brown Ehlers said. "That's allowed me to do probably a bigger volume of work."

She said she has completed about a dozen Chilkat blankets and numerous other projects in nearly 25 years of weaving.

A diverse selection of artwork and Native art techniques were on display at the fair, from beading and weaving to silver carving.

Master carver Ed Kunz was showcasing his silver carving Saturday alongside his wife, Priscilla Martin, who creates beadwork of various forms.

Kunz was carving a bracelet that he had secured in wax in a block of wood about the size of a small book.

"Each artist has their own style of doing things," he said. "When I started out I copied other masters until I developed my own style."

Kunz said Native carving takes a lot of patience and dedication. He said it took him 10 or 12 years before he earned a reputation as a quality carver.

"There are a lot of young guys who really don't want to go through the learning process. They want to start right off and have their first piece be a masterpiece," Kunz said. "It's called paying your dues, you know. You want to go through the learning process."

A Tlingit elder who speaks in a low voice, Kunz said his art has matured over the years.

"Every once in a while I run into one of the early pieces I made, and I look at it, and it's like a different artist made it," he said.

Kunz uses sheets of silver or gold he orders from Virginia, generally using a thick 18-inch gauge raw metal to begin with.

"I like to carve deep so the bracelet will last a while. I think a silver bracelet with daily wear will last about 25 years or so. A gold bracelet will last a lifetime," he said, displaying a gold bracelet his grandmother and mother had worn before he acquired it.

Martin, who has been participating in the fair since it's beginning, said art is an important aspect of Native cultures. She said art connects her with her ancestors.

"It's part of our culture - part of our heritage," she said. "Our ancestors have always one done this, and so I really enjoy doing it."

The arts and crafts fair is not only a good place to sell her artwork, but also a good place to discuss Native art with people, Martin said.

"We get to talk to a lot of people. They ask a lot of questions ... and they learn something when they come here," she said.

Brown Ehlers, a Raven of the Whale House from Klukwan, said her art is a physical expression of her clan in the tribe.

"It says who you are when you wear the regalia," she said. The blanket she was working on at the fair, which she calls "The Brown Twins of Star Hill," conveys a traditional clan story from Klukwan.

"Chilkat art defines who you are," she said.

She said she hopes the tradition of art will continue for years to come.

"I just think it's really important that the next generation does carry on art forms in the world," Brown Ehlers said. "It's real rewarding, and it's just really important for me to carry this on."

• Eric Morrison can be reached at

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