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Flow with Keet Shagoon

Hear artist Preston Singletary talk about the imagery in his work and how he uses the medium of glass to reconnect and reinterpret traditional Tlingit art and culture.

In addition to being a visual artist, Preston Singletary is a musician and member of Khu.éex’, an Indigenous band. The band focuses on bringing awareness to social issues affecting Indigenous communities and keeping tribal culture and endangered ancient languages alive through music, storytelling, and art.

Listen to a Khu.éex’ song. As you listen, think about the story being told through the song and how this might be visually represented in Keet Shagoon.

Excerpt from”Khu.éex’: the Magic of Noise” by Heartstone Studios.

Watch this clip of Singletary describing how his glass art flows like music.

Singletary was inspired by YéilX’eenh (RavenScreen), which hangs in SAM’s galleries across from Keet Shagoon. YéilX’eenh (Raven Screen) is an interior house screen like those that can be found in the clan houses of the Tlingit tribal community. These screens separate the chief’s quarters from the rest of the clan house. The small hole in the middle of the screen acts as a portal that is used by the chief to make dramatic entrances when entertaining guests or at potlatches. The imagery on the screen depicts a family crest—in this case, it depicts Raven.

How are these artworks similar? How are they different?
How are the materials the artists use different?
What could these continuities and departures tell us?

Formline by Steve Brown, courtesy of Sealaska Heritage.

Both Keet Shagoon and YéilX’eenh use formline design, a stylistic approach that serves as the foundation for designs by artists from central British Columbia to southeast Alaska. Objects like animals or people are depicted with one continuous outline, called a form line, and then filled with different shapes that represent anatomical details like eyes, wings and fins, thus creating positive and negative space within the delineated object.

Formline designs are typically made up of four basic shapes. See how many you can identify in both the contemporary artwork and the traditional artwork the next time you visit SAM.

Images: Keet Shagoon (Killer Whale), 2003, Preston Singletary. Fused and sand carved glass, 72 x 92 x 3/8 in., Purchased in honor of John H. Hauberg with funds from the Mark Tobey Estate Fund, John and Joyce Price, the Native American Art Support Fund, Don W. Axworthy, Jeffrey and Susan Brotman, Marshall Hatch, C. Calvert Knudsen, Christine and Assen Nicolov, Charles and Gayle Pancerzewski, Sam and Gladys Rubinstein, SAM Docents, SAMS Supporters, Frederick and Susan Titcomb, and Virginia and Bagley Wright, 2003.12. © Preston Singletary. Yéil X’eenh (Raven Screen), ca. 1810, Native American, Kadyisdu.axch’, Tlingit, Kiks.adi clan. Spruce, paint, 105 3/4 x 129 in. Gift of John H. Hauberg, 79.98.

Object of the Week: Dream of the Language Wheel

Freedom of worship is one of the founding principles of American democracy. After all, the First Amendment forms our constitutional religious rights: it protects the free exercise and establishment of religion. In President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1940 State of the Union, delivered before the United States’ entry into World War II, he reminded the American people that the United States was committed to securing a future in which four essential human freedoms are upheld, the second of which is, in his words, the “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.”

This is a powerful and important message, especially today. And while there are many works in SAM’s collection that give visual form to the freedom of worship, there are also a number of works that represent the opposite narrative: religious freedoms being taken away. For example, there are a number of objects in our Native American galleries whose value and function during potlatches tell a different story of persecution, as such ceremonies were banned by in 1885. Unfortunately, there are too many stories like this told through our material and visual culture. So, when thinking about freedom of worship, we must also ask who is free to worship.

In the piece pictured here, Dream of the Language Wheel, Guy Anderson offers up a unifying religious message. A member of the Northwest School, Anderson was a peer of Mark Tobey and Morris Graves and known for his abstract “mystic” paintings that incorporated motifs ranging from Zen Buddhism to Hinduism to Native American cosmologies, among others. Formally, the painting exhibits a degree of visual tension due to its divided canvas with dark and light elements. Embedded within the upper half are symbols from Northwest Coast groups—such as a fish and raven, whose treatments reference the iconic formline style of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples. In the lower half, we see early Christian symbols similarly contained within an abstract field.

While this work could be interpreted through a lens of cultural appropriation, Anderson’s blending of spiritual practices and cultures other than his own evinces the artist’s freedom of worship, developing a unique brand of spirituality which manifested itself artistically. It is also no accident that Anderson brings together Native American and early Christian iconography, given the long and fraught history between Native communities and Christian colonizers; however, the title of the work—Dream of the Language Wheel—holds, I think, an important key to the work’s meaning. A tool used to help find and translate words among different languages, a language wheel is meant to make things synonymous—that is, forge similarities. Perhaps Anderson believed that art was that thing, like a language wheel, that could unite us rather than divide us, showing us how we are more similar in our religious beliefs than we are different.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Dream of the Language Wheel, 1962, Guy Anderson, oil on canvas, 81 x 48 in., Gift of the Marshall and Helen Hatch Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2012.15.3 © Guy Anderson and Deryl Walls