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?
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.
Family, thresholds, and the mutually beneficial relationship between collecting and creating tell the story of Preston Singletary’s carved glass screen Keet Shagoon (Killer Whale).
Singletary was raised here in Seattle. His parents were artistic; his father painted and wrote poetry, and his mother wove textiles and crocheted. Their engagement with the arts encouraged Singletary to pursue art-making. As a young artist he studied with friend and mentor Dante Marioni at the renowned Pilchuck Glass School, where he would work with mentors Benjamin Moore and Lino Tagliapietra, among others. He joined and contributed to a studio glass movement driven by a close cohort of Pilchuck artists. He was also, intrinsically, part of a second family of artists, who were Native artists. On this side, Singletary lists Joe David, Robert Davidson, and Dempsey Bob as important influences. By the example and encouragement of Singletary’s Native peers, including Marvin Oliver, he was led to explore his ancestral history through his artistic practice, and he began incorporating Northwest Coast Native design into his work in 1987. In several ways SAM’s 2003 Keet Shagoon represents the culmination of that trajectory in Singletary’s career. It is a contemporary re-imagining of an interior house screen, one of the most important items of clan property, which served to display the clan’s heritage through images representing its ancestors and benefactors. The killer whale is Singletary’s family crest symbol.
Interior house screens held an important ceremonial role in Native life. In the cedar plank house, they separated the chief’s quarters from the rest of the living area and provided a portal through which he could make a dramatic entrance. The work’s form represents a threshold, and Singletary has also remarked on how the medium of glass can be “a threshold to the future for the cultural growth of Native people.” There’s more. In 2003, SAM exhibited 13 of Singletary’s works in the Native American Galleries in an exhibition called Preston Singletary: Threshold. In his artist statement Singletary explained the importance of the term for him, as he came to see himself standing at the nexus of ancient Northwest Coast Native traditions, his own world, and the future. Native art, with its roots in the physical world of cedar and pigment, and its spiritual significance, seemed to him a link between the earth and the cosmos. Finally, SAM’s purchase of Keet Shagoon memorialized another poignant moment of transition: the passing from life to death.
Yéil X’eenh (Raven Screen), ca. 1810, attributed to Kadyisdu.axch’.
John H. Hauberg (1916-2002) was a successful businessman in forest resource management and lumber, a Native arts enthusiast, and an astute collector who worked directly with Native owners, dealers, and auctioneers to form an exceptional private collection. Hauberg’s generous gifts to SAM over the years 1983–1991 built the foundation of the museum’s notable Native American art collection. Acquiring Keet Shagoon in honor of Hauberg, a year after his passing, was a fitting choice. The Pilchuck Glass School, at which artist Preston Singletary had learned his craft, had been funded by Hauberg and his first wife, Anne Gould Hauberg in 1971; and SAM’s famous Raven Screen, which had directly inspired Singletary to produce Keet Shagoon before his 2003 show at SAM, had been donated by Hauberg in 1979. SAM wouldn’t have Keet Shagoon—and we all wouldn’t be able to enjoy it—without both of their contributions.