Bahti Indian Arts Gallery here in Tucson is showing the painted carvings of David Boxley and the weavings of Evelyn Vanderhoop, both natives of Alaska, along with paintings and jewelry by Hopi artist Michael Kabotie. At a forum at the University of Arizona last week that kicked off a month-long gallery show, all three artists told tales of the difficulties of navigating an artistic place within their tribes and within the larger art world.
Reviving a lost culture is no easy matter, as Boxley found.
A Tsimshian Indian artist who's mastered the intricate designs of Northwest Coast carving, Boxley nowadays sees himself as a "culture bearer" who uses his art to foster pride in tradition. But 20 years ago, it was a struggle to interest his people in their past.
Boxley was raised in the tiny Alaska village of Metlakatla, by grandparents who taught him their language and the arts of hunting, fishing and berrypicking. Others were not so lucky. The generation ahead of him, he said, had had their language and culture leeched out in the notorious government-run Indian schools. "My mother and uncles were punished for using their language. They grew up ashamed of who they were."
After going to college in Seattle, Boxley went home to teach in a public school and found that "the culture had really gone away from people. The language was dying out...I wanted to honor my grandfather while he was still alive...I put on a potlatch to honor him."
The potlatch, a traditional extravaganza of gift-giving and feasting, was the first staged by any Tsimshian in a century. (It had been outlawed in 1884.) Not everyone was happy about its revival.
"Some Christians objected," Boxley remembered. "It's hard to revive a culture when it's been lost completely. A section doesn't care. A section is against it. A section can't wait."
And some didn't even know what he was talking about. Two days before the big event, a friend cheerfully asked, "Hey, David, when's your potluck?"
In the years since, Boxley painstakingly taught himself the lost art of carving abstract patterns and stylized animals -- ravens, bears, whales -- into the region's native alders and cedars. He's become one of the best-known of Northwest Coast Indian artists, and his painted masks and totem poles are prized by non-Indians and Indians alike. His totem poles stand in Native villages and in front of Microsoft headquarters, and his masks adorn the walls of art lovers and the heads of dancers in the traditional troupes he leads. Several of his masks, rattles and silkscreens -- a contemporary innovation designed to make the art more salable -- are on view at Bahti.
Unlike Boxley, whose tribe's culture and language had been excised by government fiat, Kabotie grew up in what he called a "very traditional culture" in the Hopi village of Sungopavi, Arizona. He finds that his difficulties are the opposite of Boxley's: his artistic experiments sometimes clash with the tribe's revered practices.
Kabotie's upbringing was slightly different from the norm. His father, the noted Hopi painter Fred Kabotie, created the murals in the Grand Canyon's Watchtower and Bright Angel Lodge, paintings seen every year by millions of non-Indians. With the father well-known outside Hopi lands, the son grew up "sensitive to the dualities of conflict, of life."
Mural painting is part of Hopi tradition -- archaeologists have uncovered murals inside old kivas -- and Kabotie says that after one aborted year in art school at the UA, he attended "the art school of his ancestors -- always looking at kiva murals." But he didn't shy away from outside art. Friends long told him that his brilliantly colored paintings, with semi-abstract shapes rocketing out in every direction, resembled those of the Russian painter Kandinksy. Kabotie looked into it and discovered a kindred spirit in another Russian-German painter, Alexei Yalensky, who was active in Munich in the 1930s.
Yalensky's "kachina-like" paintings, Kabotie said, prompted the Hopi artist to name the dead European artist "my Russian-German kachina grandfather." Most recently, Kabotie has discovered an affinity between Hopi and Celtic art, both forms reveling in rhythmic abstraction and swirls. A Hopi/Celtic collaborative show is planned for the spring in California. Such discoveries, Kabotie has found, sometimes create friction between him and traditional Hopi elders.
"As artists we get into conflict with the priesthood," Kabotie said. "We deal in some of the same things, archetypes. When the priesthood gains control, the culture can become static. Artists bring in fresh air...I use art to journey out."
The third artist on the panel, Vanderhoop, a Haida also from an Alaskan village, is showing weavings of wool and twisted cedar at Bahti. Her journey is different again from Boxley's and Kabotie's. She grew up in a famous weaving family, the daughter and granddaughter of women whose exquisite Chilkat weavings of wool and cedar bark had won them renown. The Smithsonian regularly consults with the family for information on Native arts and their works have been showcased in museums.
With the family tradition stable, Vanderhoop become a watercolorist, working in a non-Indian genre. Eventually she came around to the art of her foremothers. (Only seven weavers of the tradition are still alive.) The Bahti gallery is showing a splendid Vanderhoop piece, a dance apron in blue, yellow, white and black, with a face embedded into abstract designs. Right now, she said, her whole artistic focus is to master the tradition, and her daughter has become her apprentice.
"I want to do as well as my ancestors," Vanderhoop said. "My goal is to create a robe as exquisite as that of my ancestors."
Still, that could change later. Once Vanderhoop has brought traditional weaving to its highest level, she may transform the art into something of her own time.
"I can see myself doing something contemporary with the weaving way in the future."
The Hunts will present a carving demonstration from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, February 12. Regular gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call 577-0290.