One of the most fascinating moments of my professional life as an art dealer in Seattle, where I represented many of the world’s leading glass artists, came from one of the few genuine locals—a Tlingit artist—whose art came to reflect his cultural and religious heritage. The Seattle area glass community had become one of the few true gathering points for international cultural production. It had become the unquestionable center for the International Studio Glass Movement with the ascendancy of Dale Chihuly’s Pilchuck Mountain School of Glass.
For the moment, this is the story of two artists who achieved international fame and success, who have sold individual works of art for well over $100,000. I’m leaving out names here, but the main players are quite recognizable.
The first artist to burst through to cultural recognition and commercial success is a white guy whose content was originally inspired by finding an arrowhead during a hike on a California mountain. The mystery and lost history of the arrowhead opened what felt to him like a spiritual pathway. He became famous for incomparably crafted glass sculptures that would often look like gatherings of Native American artifacts, bones and, among many other objects, the funerary canopic jars of ancient Egypt.
I had never heard a complaint about the content of this artist’s work until the Tlingit artist personally, and rather publicly, expressed to me how offended he was by the older artist’s appropriating the imagery of Native American religious objects, such as masks and rattles, for sale in galleries.
The Tlingit artist himself had learned glassblowing in the Italian style and his first few years of production followed in the previously-well-guarded tradition of Italian techniques and design. At some point, however, he blew a Tlingit crest hat form and covered it with Formline Design—the easily recognizable graphics of the Northwest Native American cultures. It was a game-changer—it was a hit—and soon he made more of these and related works, leaving behind his Italianate designs.
But we need to interrupt the conflict narrative for a moment. Formline Design is quite different from Western imagery. The image of a raven or an orca follows precedent: It is intentionally recognizable in order to celebrate the spiritual legacy of the form. Western icons (the symbolic small-scale symbol-based paintings of saints that grew out of the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition) would maximize their numinous (i.e., religious/spiritual) power by resembling the model (e.g., a painting of the Virgin that worked miracles) as closely as possible. Copies could come close but never quite match the original—and the farther from the original, the less the icon’s power. But with Formline Design, the numinous power would come from the artist’s production: scale, technique, style, aesthetic impact, skill and so on. In other words, any Formline work could potentially outstrip the works that preceded it. This is easy enough to understand, but some of the ramifications are subtle. Any image of an icon such as a photo or a postcard, for example, refers to the original painting. Formline Design, however, doesn’t rely on a notion of “the original” but rather on the inherent meaning and power of the symbolic design. In other words, the religious “thing” is not some object but the image itself.
Considering how many Formline Design tchotchkes are sold in Pike Place Market—from posters to belt buckles—and that the design style is even featured on the helmets of the Seattle Seahawks football team, it is easy enough to imagine that most Americans would simply see Formline Design as a style, not so different from Cubism or Impressionism, for example.
But we are talking about something completely different. To refer to styles like Impressionism, we can simply take a picture and reduce it to pixel-like strokes. To evoke Picasso, an artist can show a face with one eye in a cartoony profile and the other as a frontal almond form. But Formline Design is based on specific images, and here we do get much closer to the history of Icons.
One of the most visible moments in the commercial history of appropriating Formline Design involves the logo of the Seattle Seahawks.
In 1975, Quinault/Isleta artist Marvin Oliver offered a redesigned logo he felt more accurately served the spirit of the northern Northwest Coast “formline” design principles of northern design, as laid out in Bill Holm’s seminal 1965 book, Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form. (Oliver had studied with Holm, a curator at the Burke Museum in Seattle.) (https://www.burkemuseum.org/news/mask-inspired-seahawks-logo)
The original design had very closely followed an image published in Robert Inverarity’s 1950 book, “Art of the Northwest Coast Indians: a Kwakwaka’wakw transformation mask depicting an eagle.”
It’s hardly a secret that Native Americans* are offended by being treated as mascots. The Washington “Redskins,” really? There are several things seriously wrong in the nation’s capital at the moment, but I absolutely think this should be on the list.
But Seahawks? This is tougher. Personally, I think the Seahawks’ logo expresses sufficient respect. But in light of my learning about my Tlingit friend’s take on the appropriation of the images of Northwest Native American designs, I feel like I should take a seat and listen to what the Kwakwaka’wakw people have to say. (A video of a religious welcoming and blessing ceremony conducted by the Kwakwaka’wakw people when the inspiring seahawk mask was returned to the Northwest can be seen here: https://www.burkemuseum.org/news/origin-seahawks-logo-story-unfolds.) This is a rare point where visual art has a direct connection with the most popular points of popular culture. Also, the outcome is consensually positive.
In conjunction with First Nations people (who made the final decisions and who defined the discourse of the catalog and label copy), the Colby College Museum of Art mounted Wíwənikan…the beauty we carry which will be on view through January 20, 2020. It is literally the first-ever art museum show of contemporary art of the First Nations people of Maine and the Canadian Maritime regions known as the Wabanaki: the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, and Abenaki. What surprised me was the extent to which these artists felt comfortable borrowing (appropriating?) the art of other First Nations people, some from the Southwest and Northwest cultures. To be honest, from my anti-colonialist moral perspective regarding the appropriation of native cultures, my first visits to the show were uncomfortable. But as it became clearer that it was well-informed and curated by First Nations people like Jennifer Neptune, a Penobscot basketmaker, and beadwork, and Theresa Secord, a Penobscot basketmaker who is on the museum’s board of governors, served as a consultant, I found myself stepping back to watch and learn from these First Nations people who are trying to present their culture not as a historical moment of the past but with an eye to the future. This is contemporary art that is alive and still developing in directions determined by the artists rather than by historians. I found my review of this exhibit to be as challenging as anything I have ever written.**
My goal is to raise questions and point to spaces of conflict that really aren’t mine to answer. I am advocating both engagement by emphasizing my own ingrained reactions, but then pressing the idea that we should step back and consider the issues not from our own perspectives but from the perspectives of the people whose culture is potentially being appropriated.
- I am following A.P. style here, but the recent exhibition of Wabanaki contemporary art at the Colby College Museum of Art prefers the term First Nations People.