Here & Now: Native Artists Inspired

July 15, 2015
Bill Holm Center

The vitality of the Native art scene in the Northwest continues to grow in creative and unexpected ways, but connections to older artworks often provide the spark that keeps Native artists inspired. 

Over the past ten years, the Burke Museum’s Bill Holm Center for the Study of Northwest Native Art has awarded grants to more than 90 artists and scholars so they can visit the Burke Museum and interact with the cultural collections. We wanted to gauge the real-world effects that our grants had on recipients, so we contacted each of our grantees and invited them to share how their artistic practice was affected by their visit to the Burke.

Many told us about new pieces they made that were inspired or informed by the historical artworks at the museum, so we created an exhibit, Here & Now: Native Artists Inspired, that opened in November 2014 to showcase their art alongside the pieces from the Burke that they identified as being key to their learning. The exhibit closed on July 27, 2015, but we wanted to share some of the pieces in the exhibit, along with the artists’ thoughts on this process—the conversations between the old and the new—in their own words.

Aaron Nelson-Moody, Squamish

“My generation grew up without a lot of old objects around. My early rediscovery of the classic Coast Salish forms comes from these old spindle whorls. I learned from them in the absence of teachers who are still carving in that style. First, I translated the old whorl into a two-dimensional print. For the copper piece, I wanted to respect the level of intricacy in the old objects. Repoussé is an extremely slow process but you get the very fine, crisp detail that was necessary to tackle this piece in the way that I see it in my mind.” – Aaron Nelson-Moody

Copper Repoussé Whorl (left): Aaron Nelson-Moody, Squamish, 2014. Burke Museum #2015-18/1. Spindle Whorl (right): Unknown artist, Squamish, 19th century. Burke Museum #1-275.

Joel Isaak, Kenaitze

“I gathered the materials for these salmon skin boots from the fish that I actually ate that year. There is a connection when I work with the skins that I gather in the summer in that I feel connected to that annual cycle of plenty. In my culture male and female gender roles are equals… you’re equal but you’re in different roles in society. My idea of a man and wife going together through life walking side by side drove my inspiration for this piece. I put their faces into the boots letting them tell their own story.” – Joel Isaak

Nilts’ilt’an - Husband and Wife (left, center): Joel Isaak, Kenaitze, 2014. Salmon Skin bag (right): Unknown artist, Alaskan Arctic, collected in 1920, Burke Museum #4230.

Lisa Telford, Haida

“While I weave my mind is free. Weaving seems to flow. Every museum I’ve been in has a solid painted hat. It’s either blue, green, black, or red—there’s something about the green ones that I absolutely love. I took this hat that I made and painted it. I wiped it off to make it look a little distressed like the old ones do, and I painted the inside. I think it’s quite pretty, now. I really like it. I don’t know why I like the green. I just do.” – Lisa Telford

Hat (left): Lisa Telford, Haida, 2014. On loan from the artist. Hat (right): Unknown artist, Haida, acquired in 1909, Burke Museum #1578. 

Shgen George, Tlingit

“I love how it feels when I’m working with wool and bark and yarn. I love how it looks, the texture of it when it’s coming together. The design is a killer whale dorsal fin, which is my clan, and the woven teeth represent my house. My octopus bag takes the Chilkat weaving technique and uses it on something that it wasn’t used for traditionally. We see Chilkat robes, of course, and aprons and leggings and tunics. I’ve seen robes cut up and made into bags. But I haven’t seen this weaving technique used directly to create an octopus bag.” – Shgen George

Kéet Ooxú (Killer Whale Teeth) (left, far right): Shgen George, Tlingit, 2014. Chilkat Tunic (center, right): Unknown artist, Tlingit, 19th century. Burke Museum #1-631. 

Alison Bremner, Tlingit

“‘Raven’s Cloak’ is my interpretation of the evolution of regalia. It’s a blanket influenced by the old style, but something that Raven would maybe wear today. I wanted to honor the old regalia but also continue as if contact with Western civilization hadn’t hindered our artwork. During my time at the Burke we pulled out this octopus bag and I was really impressed. The craftsmanship was fantastic and I was hit by the energy I got from the piece. I think the artist who made it would be proud to know that it still carries that feeling all these years later.” 

Alison Bremner

Raven’s Cloak (left, center): Alison Bremner, Tlingit, 2014. Burke Museum #2015-20/1. Octopus Bag (right): Unknown artist, Tlingit, acquired in 1909. Burke Museum #964.

Evelyn Vanderhoop, Haida

“This was my first belt and I was inspired by the stories of warriors’ wives who were expected to weave two belts before the warriors went to war. Warriors would exchange belts with their wives on the shore, just before going off in the war canoes. In order to come back victoriously, the belt had images of future captives on it. These leggings are very special. Looking very closely, I could tell by the techniques that this is an early, early piece showing how earlier textile techniques evolve to the more complex textile techniques used for naaxiin (Chilkat) weavings.” 

Evelyn Vanderhoop

Spirit Belt and Naaxiin (Chilkat) Leggings

Spirit Belt (left): Evelyn Vanderhoop, Haida, 2008-9. Burke Museum #2009-183/1. Naaxiin (Chilkat) Leggings (right): Unknown artist, Tlingit. Burke Museum #1954.

Sonny Assu, Ligwilda’xw of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nations

“Having my great-great-grandfather Chief Billy Assu’s Chilkat regalia placed on my shoulders was part of the inspiration for this painting. This piece compares chiefly nobility—embedded with the knowledge and wisdom of his years as chief—to how we formulate social status today through consumerism, branding, pop culture and social media. This painting flows from my “Abstraction of Abstraction” theory that counters the narratives of Western art movements, particularly that of the Cubists and Surrealists, who looked to non-Western cultures for inspiration. For me the pattern board was important—I was trying to challenge myself to make paintings based on a pattern board but placed in reaction to the colonial gaze upon the centuries-old cultural and artistic practices of the Kwakwaka’wakw.” 

Sonny Assu

#potlatchshadesofgrey (right): Sonny Assu, Ligwilda’xw of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nations, 2013. Burke Museum #2015-62/1. Naaxiin (Chilkat) Blanket Pattern Board (right): Unknown artist, Tlingit. Burke Museum #1-1880.

Tommy Joseph, Tlingit

“All the pieces are inspired by actual pieces I saw in museum collections. I wasn’t satisfied with written descriptions so I went to see these pieces myself. There was a Raven Helmet, called Katlian’s helmet, made from the head of a brown bear and stretched over the wooden raven-shaped form. The actual eyeholes of the bear became the eyeholes of the raven. I used the same technique of the head of a brown bear for my raven. I purposefully made my raven look really different from Katlian’s helmet. It’s inspired by it, but really it looks different.” 

Tommy Joseph

Rainforest Warrior (left): Tommy Joseph, Tlingit. Raven Helmet, 2004-5. Neck Guard, 2013-14, red cedar. Helmet (right), Unknown artist, Tlingit, 1909. Burke Museum #2452.

David Robert Boxley, Tsimshian

“I’ve always been fascinated by Tsimshian puppets and the theatricality of our performances in the old days—it didn’t have to just be a mask. Its head is a rattle and when you pull the string the arms bring the hands up to the chest. It had some reason; we have to think about the function of this art and start from there. This old puppet is neat with the limbs being made of some kind of stuffed hide, fabulous little legs. The artist didn’t need to do that—he could have just had sticks but it gives it great character.” 

David Robert Boxley

String Puppet (left): David Robert Boxley, Tsimshian, 2014. String Puppet (center, right): Unknown artist, Tsimshian. Burke Museum #1-1653. 

Latham Mack, Nuxalk

“My three-fin killer whale mask was inspired by a Nuxalk frontlet at the Burke. Looking at that old piece, it’s got pectoral fins coming up and a face on top for a tail. That’s where I got the idea to do three fins instead of putting the tail on the top and I exaggerated that face and made it a blowhole. It’s great to go and study the old pieces, to look at them, and hold them. You feel their energy. You can’t get over the quality, the detail, in the pieces. They’re some of the best teachers you get.” 

Latham Mack

Three-Finned Killer Whale Mask (left, center): Latham Mack, Nuxalk, 2014. Frontlet (right): Unknown artist, Bella Coola (Nuxalk), late 19th century. Burke Museum #25.0/231.

David A. Boxley, Tsimshian

“For years, I’ve seen this bowl and said ‘One of these days I’m going to make a replica of that.’ The original artist was really, really good; it’s always been an inspirational piece for me. There’s a lot of things that I like about it that are really odd but beautiful and innovative. My bowl is not a 100% copy. I made a few changes just because of my style. This art is so individual. We all follow the same two-dimensional design rules, and what makes one artist different from the next is how he interprets his style into that strict set of rules.” 

David A. Boxley

Feast Bowl (left): David A. Boxley, Tsimshian, 2014. Feast Dish (right): Unknown artist, Tsimshian, 19th century, cedar. Burke Museum #2252.

Lou-ann Ika’wega Neel, Kwakwaka’wakw Nations

“Immediately, my eye was drawn to this particular dance apron because it had coppers all along the bottom—it represented such wealth, and richness, and the weight—the physical weight of it—was so overwhelming to me. I know how long it takes to cut every one of those coppers, to drill all of them, and sew them on securely. My piece connects our people and the salmon. The salmon and the coppers are the symbols of wealth in our culture. We have a relationship with our territories, we’re here, we return every year, just like the salmon does.” 

Lou-ann Ika’wega Neel

The Wealth of Matik (Sockeye Salmon) (left): Lou-ann Ika’wega Neel, Kwakwaka’wakw Nation, 2014. Burke Museum #2015-17/1. Dance Apron (center, right): Unknown artist, Kwakwaka’wakw, 1893. Burke Museum #4.

The Burke’s cultural collections hold answers from the past to questions that artists are asking today—questions about creativity, inspiration, environment, materials, aesthetics, and market. For the artists and researchers who visit us, the table in our collections study space is a site of learning and laughter, a place to connect with past generations. While artists cannot apprentice with masters from generations back, the artworks themselves can be teachers.

Now it’s your turn to reflect on connections to your own past through family heirlooms and inherited knowledge. What inspires you?

Learn more

Follow the Bill Holm Center on Facebook to stay connected. Learn more about the Bill Holm Center and future grant opportunities. 

Learn more about Here & Now featured artists through these external links (in no particular order):

Alison Bremner
David Robert Boxley
David A. Boxley
Rico Worl
Pat Courtney Gold
Sonny Assu
Latham Mack 
Aaron Nelson Moody
Lou-ann Neel
Joel Isaak
Shgen George
Evelyn Vanderhoop
Tommy Joseph
Lisa Telford (no website provided)
Christian White (no website provided)

Back to Top