Why Sealaska Heritage is important to Northwest Coast art
Sealaska Heritage Institute’s biennial Juried Art Show and Competition is raising the bar for Native artists in Southeast Alaska. This year’s juror David Robert Boxley says the competition creates an environment for artists to constantly keep striving.
“The winners were chosen in a way that I hope will show what’s possible,” he says.
Boxley is a Tsimshian artist from Metlakatla and the son of prominent carver David Boxley. His father just finished his 72nd totem pole.
David R. Boxley started carving when he was six, learning from his father.
He says Sealaska Heritage Institute’s competition pushes the standard of art being made in Southeast Alaska.
“Southeast Alaska is cut off from the rest of the coast and all the major galleries in Vancouver and Seattle and I don’t think as many artists are able to be exposed to what’s going on down there and Sealaska is trying to get rid of that gap,” Boxley says.
He says artists now are still trying to reach the level of work that was done in the past.
“There’s a whole period of time where our art – at the same time the culture – was outlawed, dropped in quality because the old masters weren’t able to pass things on,” Boxley says.
Striving to attain those standards and quality, he says, is part of what’s keeping Native culture alive and healthy in Southeast Alaska.
“The art isn’t safe necessarily. There are a lot of great artists but that doesn’t mean that if we don’t push the standard and maintain that, that it won’t slip away again,” Boxley says.
This is the first time Boxley has judged the Sealaska Heritage Juried Art Show. He says it’s stressful, but he knows being on the other end of the process is also angst ridden.
Artist Lily Hope can relate. Prior to the June 11 awards ceremony, Hope didn’t go to the show, which opened five days before.
“I was having all this anxiety and I was like, ‘I can’t go look. I can’t go look at everybody else’s because I don’t want to lose sleep over, like, who could be winning,'” Hope says. “And five or six days ago I woke up and I was like, ‘It’s cool. I got third place. I’m good.’ My dream said I won third place.”
Her dream was correct. Hope placed third in the Northwest Coast Customary-Inspired Art category for her child ensemble, Little Watchman.
“He’s kind of watching out for our kids, but also for the integrity of the art, how it develops over time and how we stay true to the spiritual life of our work,” Hope says.
During the awards ceremony, Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl said art is a major part of Native culture because of its ties to spirituality.
“But we’ve also grown it into the Western culture where we can appreciate it also for its aesthetics. And this is where I think having our younger artists learn both aspects of it is so important to us,” Worl said.
The Juried Art Show and Competition was founded in 2002 to support the artists. This year’s awards total more than $8,000. Sealaska Heritage also offers art workshops throughout Southeast and its Celebration festival features a Native Artist Market.
“It is our goal to make Juneau and Southeast Alaska the Northwest Coast art capital,” Worl said.
Sealaska Heritage broke ground on the Walter Soboleff Center last August. Part of the center’s purpose is to display Northwest Coast art and support artists through an artist-in-residence program, demonstration and research areas.
Worl says the Walter Soboleff Center will make Juneau the next hub of Northwest Coast art.