Artist teaches formline in prison by day, Tsimshian by night

Littlefield examines one of David A. Boxley's handouts. He says handouts like these, and Boxley's ability to break things down make him a great teacher. (Photo by Scott Burton/KTOO)

Tsimshian artist and teacher David A. Boxley just wrapped a pair of intensive, weeklong workshops on formline design and Tsimshian language in Juneau. He’s been at Lemon Creek Correctional Center teaching formline by day, and at the Walter Soboleff Building teaching Tsimshian language by night.

Entering the maximum security prison—with its checkpoints, razor wire barricades, metal detectors and armed guards—it’s hard to imagine an art class. Until you get to the library.

“I have nine hard-working fellas sitting around a big conference table with elbows flying, and pencils and erasers moving quickly, and they’ve got templates, and booklets with all the information and diagrams to help them produce the eagles, ravens, wolves and killer whales that they’re working hard to produce,” says Boxley who is best known in Juneau for the two-story high clan house front he made for the Walter Soboleff Building.

Nine men attended David A. Boxley's four-day formline design class. (photo by Scott Burton/KTOO)

Nine men attended David A. Boxley’s four-day formline design class. (photo by Scott Burton/KTOO)

William Littlefield holds his drawing. He hopes to make and teach art professionally when he is released. (Photo by Scott Burton/KTOO)

William Littlefield holds his drawing. He hopes to make and teach art professionally when he is released. (Photo by Scott Burton/KTOO)

The men wear bright yellow prison onesies and are of diverse cultural backgrounds. They look focused and work silently. Colorful examples of formline art are taped to the shelves of books, and natural light filters in through two skylights. Boxley circles the room observing the students’ work. Among them is aspiring Tlingit artist William Littlefield from Sitka.

“There’s been a few people that has been willing to teach me this but they don’t break everything down like how David has,” says Littlefield, who wants to make art and teach professionally when he gets out.

Boxley and class sponsor Sealaska Heritage Institute want to help artists like Littlefield improve their formline design.

“The art is endangered because people are producing stuff that isn’t really that great,” says Boxley. “There are some of us that really want to stem that tide and redirect people back to making good quality formline. And formline, like my grandfather used to tell me, no matter how good the carving is, if the design is bad then the whole thing is bad.”

Once the 7-hour formline class is over, Boxley heads downtown to teach Tsimshian language for 3 more hours.

Boxley demonstrates with the Tsimshian language class. UAS student David Russell-Jensen sits second from the left in the back row. (Photo courtesy Brian Wallace/Sealaska Heritage Institute)

Close to 20 people have gathered in an empty office space at the Walter Soboleff Building. Boxley has labeled most objects in the room in Tsimshian, and two tables of props for games and activities stand before them. While art and language are related, Boxley says they’re in different states.

“Our art is flourishing. There are hundreds and hundreds of people from different tribes from Yakutat to Seattle who are producing art,” says Boxley.
The language is a different story. Boxley says there are only 50 fluent Tsimshian speakers left.

“Our language is extremely threatened, I mean beyond extremely threatened,” he says.

After instruction from Boxley, the students break out into small groups to practice introductions.

David Russell-Jensen is Tsimshian Killer Whale with roots in Metlakatla and now lives in Juneau. He goes to the University of Alaska Southeast. While studying Tlingit there, he learned about Boxley’s class.

“I think it’s important to be connected to the land you live on but also it’s very important for me to be learning my language because it’s not in that great of state right now so, hoping to work on that,” says Russell-Jensen.

Russell-Jensen embodies Boxley’s hope for the future of Tsimshian language.

“You know it’s not our fault that we speak primarily in English these days, but it will be our fault if the last speaker dies and no one else can do it,” says Boxley.

“Not everyone can be a dancer or a singer, not everyone can be a carver or an artist but everybody talks. So we’re all responsible for the life or death of our language going into the future.”

Both Boxley and the Sealaska Heritage Institute hope to do more Tsimshian language classes in the future. Boxley’s next gig is at home in Washington state, where he’s teaching a mask-making workshop.

Boxley teaches the class how to introduce themselves in Tsimshian. (Photo courtesy Brian Wallace/Sealaska Heritage Institute)

Boxley teaches the class how to introduce themselves in Tsimshian. (Photo courtesy Brian Wallace/Sealaska Heritage Institute)

Recent headlines

  • dollar bill money macro

    Per diems driving special session costs

    Lawmakers who represent areas outside Juneau receive $295 for each day of the special session. Juneau lawmakers receive $221.25 per day.
  • Caroline Hoover proudly pins an Alaska Territorial Guard medal on the front of her father's parka during an official discharge ceremony held Oct. 17 in Kipnuk, Alaska. David Martin is one of three surviving members of the Alaska Territorial Guard's Kipnuk unit. A total of 59 residents of Kipnuk, who volunteered to defend Alaska in the event of a Japanese invasion during World War II, were recognized during the ceremony. Kipnuk residents who served with the Alaska Territorial Guard from 1942-1947 were members of a U.S. Army component organized in response to attacks by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor. (Photo by Jerry Walton, Department of Military and Veterans Affairs cultural resource manager and native liaison/public domain/Wikimedia Commons)

    16 Alaska Territorial Guard vets to be honored in Anchorage

    Sixteen veterans of the Alaska Territorial Guard will be honored at a discharge ceremony today. Four of them are from Western Alaska.
  • Don Andrew Roguska looks out from an upstairs window of an historic Juneau house he bought in 2016 to restore. Zoning regulations have prevented him from rebuilding in the same style. (Photo by Jacob Resneck/KTOO)

    Juneau mulls relaxing zoning rules for historic houses

    The historic houses in Juneau and Douglas were predominately built by miners and fishermen long before today's zoning was put into place. That's prevented homeowners from restoring or rebuilding homes in these neighborhoods without running into conflict with the city's zoning laws -- a temporary fix may be on the way.
  • Young joins Afghanistan war skeptics in Congress

    Alaska U.S. Rep. Don Young wants to know why Americans are still fighting in Afghanistan. He has co-sponsored a bill that would end funding for the war in a year, unless the president and Congress affirm the need for it.