Haines artist and community leader pursues rare apprenticeship in Northwest Coast formline art

James Hart paints in his studio in Haines. (Photo by Corinne Smith/KHNS)

Bathed in afternoon spring sunlight and a sweeping view of Mount Ripinsky, Haines formline artist James Hart sits in his studio overlooking Main Street. Northwest Coast formline paintings and paddles hang on the walls, and a split board leans against one wall, all painted by his brother, cousin and Hart himself.

He puts the finishing touches on a new formline painting, outlining a bold, black design, highlighted by red forms and a yellow background.

Hart will apprentice with several master Lingít and Haida artists beginning this summer. The young artist says he’s excited to take his skills to the next level in glass and carving.

He began focusing on Northwest Coast formline art just a few years ago.

“It’s been a very long road from the start, which was a paddle-making class with Wayne Price here in Haines, at the woodshop at the school,” he said. “And from there, I was able to apprentice with him on two 40-foot dugouts, and kind of wasn’t sure if that was the direction I wanted to keep going. But it just kept calling me back.”

James Hart puts the finishing touches on a painting. (Photo by Corinne Smith/KHNS)

From there, he began taking formline design classes with Tsimshian artist David Robert Boxley of Metlakatla. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“So, I spent a lot of time just working on designs. My design work has gotten a lot better. And I felt like I was in a place where I’m comfortable designing and now I want to start learning how to carve these designs,” Hart said.

During that time, in 2020, he also founded a screen printing company, 3-Mile Designs, and created original formline designs on clothing.

Up next, is something totally new for Hart — working in glass. He was selected to attend a workshop at the Pilchuck Glass School in Washington state, working with renowned Lingít glass artist Preston Singletary and master carver Joe David.

“We’re encouraged to show up with different designs. So I believe we’re going to be blowing glass and then sandblasting our designs onto these different pieces. So super excited to check it out and see what’s going on,” he said.

Then, Hart will apprentice with revered master Haida artist Robert Davidson.

“If you’re unfamiliar with Robert Davidson, he’s your favorite Northwest Coast artist’s favorite artist,” Hart said.

Davidson is a pivotal figure in the Northwest Coast art renaissance starting in 1969, and is an internationally known carver of totem poles and masks, printmaker, painter and jeweler.

Hart approached Davidson last winter, and they discussed his work and agreed Hart would apprentice with him at his British Columbia studio for the next few years.

“I’ll be honest, I got done, I jumped around and like, fist-pumped a few times and then probably cried a little bit too,” Hart said. “It was all the emotions wrapped up in one.”

Hart says Northwest Coast art is a difficult art form to learn and says he feels extremely fortunate to get to work with Davidson.

Hart tears up a bit and grabs a paintbrush again.

“He does a lot for Haida Gwaii and Haida people. He’s also a little bit Lingít so that’s also fun to put in,” he said with a laugh. “But he holds his culture extremely highly. And it seems like that’s been his driving force is the culture, and to be able to kind of learn from somebody and learn how to create a career that’s culturally based, is really what I’m looking for.”

Community members may know Hart from a number of leadership roles in Haines; he’s the president of the Chilkoot Indian Association and is involved in tribal and regional public affairs. He’s also Coach Hart to young basketball players at Haines High, or Little League players during the summer.

James Hart holds up two paintings in his Haines studio. (Photo by Corinne Smith/KHNS)

Hart plans to travel back and forth between Haines and British Columbia and continue participating in those areas, particularly mentoring and sharing traditional arts with youth.

“It’s a place that I’m always going to be coming back to; it’s home,” he said.

Hart says he hopes to take what he learns from other places back to the community.

“So that’s an aspiration, is to learn how to do bigger things and bring the next generation along with me,” he said.

And, Hart says, it’s important for those young artists to not be afraid to ask questions and find mentors who can help bring their skills to the next level.

“We can’t do these things by ourselves. Everybody’s had help along the way,” he said.

Hart will be part of a group show of contemporary Native American artists next month at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma called “In the Spirit” opening July 15. See his work on Instagram.

KHNS - Haines

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