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Native Glass Art | Preston Singletary

Artist Preston Singletary takes Native American art out of the cultural corral by creating artworks in glass.

Full talk transcript

Preston Singletary: My name is Preston Singletary. I come from the Kaagwaantaan Clan from the Tlingit tribe in Alaska. I live in Seattle.

John Sharify: Preston, it's wonderful to be on stage with you.  Thank you for the opportunity to have a conversation with you.

Singletary: Thank you.

Sharify: You have said that native art has always been excluded from the fine art world. Talk a little bit about that and how your art and your approach to your craft is perhaps changing that scenario?

Singletary: I always say that native art has been excluded from the fine art world and has been kept in this cultural corral, so to speak. And there are people who like to determine what is contemporary, what is traditional, and where it fits in. So, I feel like the work that I'm doing is changing that here. I was raised here in Seattle and started working on glass blowing teams in about 1982.

The first exploration that I found when I was trying to connect my glass art with the cultural art was this hat form, typically made out of spruce root or cedar bark. When I sandblasted some of the Tlingit designs into the piece, I had a discovery that this shadow effect that came through the piece when I put it on a pedestal, and to me it was like a spirit was being revealed to me. I like to think of it today as a kind of a kinetic sculpture that interacts with the light.

Glass has the ability to be utilized in different ways, to bring a new dimension to indigenous art.

Sharify: Well two things come to mind. First of all, where is that hat now, and in this experience that you had with it — it sounded like it was a eureka moment — and I'm curious about how that manifested in you as an artist.

Singletary: Well, the first pieces I produced were in about 1989, and I sent them up to Alaska. The first piece sold to the Museum of History and Art in Anchorage and the other one disappeared. I don't know what happened to it. It's out there somewhere in the world, but it never came back to me.

Sharify: Someone's enjoying it right now.

Singletary: Someone is. So I spent a lot of time looking at cultural objects. This is a traditional bowl that was made. So I'm looking at these objects and then creating glass sculptures that reflect the older pieces. A lot of these things were perhaps, you know, utilitarian or had a place within the culture, and almost everything was ornamented with design work. A lot of these things are used for stagecraft for storytelling, reiterating the stories for the clans.

And also some of them had maybe like a deeper spiritual connection for ceremony or ritual, healing rituals by a shaman. And so those are the things that inspire me. The connection of animal spirits to humans and communicating the elements of the natural world. So a lot of these things are explorations of different forms and techniques so they could employ a lot of it using the sand-blasting technique.

But to jump forward just a little bit about what I'm doing now — I'm kind of trying to integrate more of the modernist sensibilities. So the modernists were the ones who were reflecting on primitive cultures — so-called primitive cultures — and so these pieces, this little group of pieces, to me reflect a bit of a modernist sensibility. So I'm trying to turn the tables on the modernists, so to speak.

Sharify: And this is all glass we're looking at.

Singletary: Yes, this is all mostly blown glass, blown and sculpted in different ways.

Sharify: Your work with elders has been significant and so critical in the development of your art. Take us through that journey.

Singletary: In the summer of 2000, I met a man named Joe David who became one of my most important mentors. He was from the Nuucahnulth tribe from the west coast of Vancouver Island, but he was a master carver and was largely responsible for the resurgence of Northwest Coast art coming back into awareness and attention.

We were up at the Pilchuck School, and he wanted to create a ceremonial sweat lodge up on the hill, and offer to all of us who were up there. He explained it was a suffering and sacrifice ceremony and that he would show us this experience. For me, I was really rather apprehensive, but I participated with the four sweats, and after that he adopted me and he shared his name with me.

He gave me his name, which in the Tlingit language means "transforming killer whale." This is really significant because on the Northwest Coast you could receive names throughout your lifetime which would denote a change or growth; or if you were to assume new responsibilities, such as being house leader, then you might receive an ancestral name.

Sharify: You refer to the Pilchuck Glass School, and the Pilchuck totem pole project was a defining project for you on many levels.

Singletary: Yeah, one of the first teachers that I met was David Spence, who helps me with some carving projects since I don’t carve wood — I work exclusively in glass. So he had the idea to bring this effort together — we would honor the founders of the Pilchuck Glass School, John Hauberg, Anne Hauberg, Dale Chihuly. So we took that collaborative spirit that we learned as glass blowers and we brought in these Alaskan carvers from Haines, Alaska, and they carved this totem pole. We created a class surrounding the finishing in the completion of the pole and created these totemic elements that were fabricated in glass and then they were inlaid into the pole.

John Hauberg was a passionate Northwest Coast native art collector, and he had repatriated some materials to the tribes up in Alaska, so he was adopted, given a Tlingit name. So we felt it was very befitting to make this totem pole for him. We invited some of the elders from Alaska to come down and help us with the installation ceremony, and so here we have a little bit of an example of how we backlit those glass elements with neon tubes. And here you can see Dale Chihuly’s face.

Instead of the patch you know, we have this slash across the eye, which represents Dale’s vision of glass, his vision of the school; and he's holding the raven, which in the mythological stories is "Raven brings the light to the world." It was like Dale Chihuly brought the idea of Pilchuck to the world.

Sharify: You’ve spoken about the spiritual path you're on. Where are you on that journey?

Singletary: When I was up on the campus, that project was really a rite of passage for me. It was something that while I was there I had this flash of déjà vu which just really impacted me. It made me feel as though I'd been there before, and, for me it was kind of like a genetic memory that I feel we all possess. I feel like that's something that in terms of Tlingit culture, we pay honor to the ancestors through the generations through totem poles.

This is my great-grandmother here in the center. She relocated from Alaska in the '20s to Seattle, and that's how we all ended up in the Seattle area. She lived to be over 100 years old, and so she was quite a figure in my family.

And, you know, one of the last conversations I had with my own grandmother, her daughter, was that if anybody would look at her life's work then they’d have to look at her grandchildren. So today I’m filled with a tremendous sense of purpose, through the work that I do.

Sharify: A lot of your work lately has been monumental — literally and figuratively; show us what that means to you and the impact of this monumental work.

Singletary: The Northwest Coast cultures have a sense of pageantry you know, and grand scale, and as I mentioned the reflection of the ancestors through a generational process. And I feel like I'm a part of that lineage, that matrilineal society. This is one of the largest pieces I did a couple of years ago. It’s in the Seattle Art Museum; it’s a killer whale screen and that is the crest symbol that represents my family.

These are some larger pieces that I did. These are house posts, [weighing] about 500 pounds each. And this was for the Museum of Glass, in a much larger screen that represents the eagle, which is the side of the tribe were my family comes from. And then, of course, getting into more of an international collaboration, I started to work in the Czech Republic, where we were pioneering large-scale glass casting. This is an example of a story of my great-grandmother here in this totem pole; that she had a pet grizzly bear a child. So you can see the grizzly bear cub on the top and you can see my great-grandmother. And so that's what totem poles do — they tell a story.

Sharify: Speaking of stories, I'm fascinated by your story. I learned something about you and that is when you were younger you had dreams of being an artist — of course that's not surprising — but they were dreams of being a performing artist, dreams of being a professional musician. In fact, you would go on to create glass art to support what you were hoping was going to be your musical career.

Singletary: Right, right. So I always say that I’m kind of a musician trapped in the body of glass blower, and it's true I started blowing glass in the beginning I thought, well, now I can afford to do my passion, which is music. So I have this band and I spent a lot of time through the '90s playing music and not really getting anywhere with it. But more recently I thought to integrate my cultural connection with native performers, and we have this group called Little Big Band and it’s a Native American funk band, because, well, there was never one before so I figured there needed to be one. And because for me you know funk music really embodies the best of lots of genres — jazz, rock, soul, gospel, on and on — so we have a little snippet we're gonna play.

(music plays)

Singletary: I had the opportunity to work with a pretty famous musician named Bernie Worrell, who actually played with Parliament Funkadelic in the '70s and '80s. That was an example of using traditional Tlingit music and then creating these funk-jazz improvisations around it.

Sharify: Well, in the short time I've known you, which is one week, I know you have so much gratitude — you're grateful to you collaborators and your mentors and the people who believed in you. They've given you so much inspiration for the work you do.

Singletary: I spent a lot of time working collaboratively with other artists, and so in my way, that sort of giving back to the community and showing that glass has the ability to be utilized in different ways, to bring a new dimension to indigenous art. So this is a variety of collaborations that I have done with different artists from around the country, the Southwest, also the Hawaiian Maori culture. So these are all glass-blown pieces that are reflective of other people's culture. This was the Maori version here, conjoining the traditional jade and then also conjoining the stories. I learn a lot through working with other indigenous artists and how they approach their culture. And so I always say that you know the materials that we use for indigenous art are becoming increasingly rare, such as the cedar logs for the totem poles and dugout canoes, and so you'll start to see new materials being utilized by artists to keep the stories and the symbols alive. And then the fact that we are all connected in this continuum. There’s a Maori proverb that I learned and that is: “My accomplishments are not mine alone but those of many.”

Sharify: Preston, thank you for sharing with us your beautiful work and your wisdom.

Singletary: Thank you.


Speaker Bio

The art of Preston Singletary has become synonymous with the relationship between European glass-blowing traditions and Northwest Native art. His artworks feature themes of transformation, animal spirits and shamanism through elegant blown glass forms and mystical sand-carved Tlingit designs.

Singletary learned the art of glass blowing by working with artists in the Seattle area, including Benjamin Moore and Dante Marioni. Read more