Seattle artist Preston Singletary gets solo show at Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian

Inside the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., an impressive sculpted glass box lights up from the inside. This is the Box of Daylight, a legendary bowl that is part of an original story in the Old Northwest, brought to life in new ways by Preston Singletary, the internationally recognized artist based in Seattle who fuses his Tlingit heritage with his cutting-edge approaches to glass.

Preston Singletary: Raven and the Box of Daylight exhibition – debuted in 2018 at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma and recently opened at the National Museum of the American Indian (running through January 29, 2023) It tells the story of how the world was given light by the powerful and mischievous Raven. Raven tricked his way into the house of a wealthy old man who owned chests containing the sun, moon and stars. Transform into a human child, beg for boxes, release their contents and provide the world with light.

The fact that this story, told by this artist, is presented by NMAI, and is very eclectic in presenting solo performances, underscores the importance of the story to the many indigenous cultures of the Northwest Coast and the accomplishments of Singletary himself. For decades now, Singletary has reminded us of enduring indigenous practices of adopting new technologies and materials and fusing tradition with invention.

According to Amy Van Allen, Smithsonian’s project manager for the gallery, NICI officials are very excited to host “Raven and the Box of Daylight” because “Preston’s art brings this story to life in a vibrant and accessible way” and because they hope to shine a light on original art. and “continuous innovation and creativity” of artists.

When Singletary began working with glass in 1982, he learned European glassblowing alongside stars Benjamin Moore and Dante Marioni. About five years later, wanting to introduce indigenous themes and patterns into his glasswork, he sought out mentors such as artist Joe David (Nuu-Chah-Nulth), who expanded his knowledge of indigenous culture, including about the all-important Northwest Coast line design (the intricate style of lines expansion and contracting).

Since then, Singletary has become highly regarded in art glass circles, the wider art world, and indigenous communities locally and around the world.

“Raven and the Box of Daylight” is Singletary’s most ambitious project to date, packed with technical innovations in single glass pieces and multimedia experiences throughout the show’s run. The lighting, audio, and video installations feature Raven stories spoken by Tlingit seniors and music and sound clips created by Singletary, who is also a musician.

We spoke with the artist in his South Lake Union studio, just before the opening of the NMAI exhibition. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

It is a great privilege to have your work on display at the Museum of the American Indian. How do you feel?

Well, it is very fun and unpretentious. It’s something that you wish to achieve, like reach a certain point in your career, but you never know if it will happen or not. So, it’s surprising and surprising, but I also had this kind of calmness around it because it’s been in the works for so long.

That’s right, the opening was postponed a year due to the pandemic, and of course, I started developing the show years ago. Take us back to your original idea. Why exposition on the story of Raven and The Box of Daylight?

Raven’s story is one of the most famous on the Northwest Coast. Raven Steals the Sun, Raven Brings the Light, the Raven and the Box of Knowledge – all of these titles are versions of that story. I’ve always immersed myself in images of Raven and touched upon aspects of the story but then meet a Tlingit elder named Walter Porter, a mythologist who dissects stories in much the same way as Joseph Campbell, drawing parallels with other theologies and myths. Walter opened my eyes to a lot of symbolism, which gave me inspiration to create different types of sculptures. And it set the trend for me, that the sculptures would bring viewers through the story.

Walter and I were going to work together on this show, but unfortunately, he passed away. I had to find another coordinator and immediately thought of Miranda Bilardi Lewis because she’s Tlingit, Zuni, and a professor at the University of Washington. She’s doing some really deep work on the science of what Aboriginal people were made of and the uses and reasons behind them.

So your glass objects guide viewers through Raven’s story as she shoots light into the world, with plenty of other moments along the way. Some of your sculptures are illuminated with video projections or surrounded by light and sound installations. Why are these immersive elements important to you?

I’ve played with that on small levels over the years. Several years ago, around 2000, I created a file [immersive] I feel fixed at the Traver Show, where I’m showing in Seattle. And I even made some music because that’s my other passion. I work with original themes, original musicians – it’s my other style of artistic expression. So, with this project, I wanted to shift the scenes elsewhere. Lighting and environment create a metaphor for the transition from dark to light.

I was able to work with Juniper Shui – a visual artist who does projected video, has a stage background – and he and I designed the exhibition together, developing video shows as backgrounds for some scenes and moving some individual sculptures throughout the galleries. I wanted to create this illusion of movement and transformation. Like Raven’s fleeting movements and changes. The experience will be different for each person. With some of my musician friends, we created five or six soundtracks that blend together as you browse through the gallery. Our audio artist, Matt Starrett, also worked with us to set up directional speakers, so depending on where you stand, you get a different mix of different tracks.

I wonder if this is related to the way you play with light and shadow? You’ve been doing this for a while with your glass sculptures, the light shining through them in certain ways, and you’ve put in different ways to experience the work.

right. It is symbolic here. As is the case with one of my sculptures that symbolizes the transformation of a crow from a bird into a human form. It’s some kind of human form – a human head with a bird’s beak – and the video is projected onto it, so you get those shadow effect, movement, and shift iterations.

It is as if viewers can feel the story through these multisensory techniques. For some original artists, there can be a kind of push between individual creative expression and the responsibility of learning and teaching. How do you feel about it?

Certainly, I would like people to learn about the culture. I feel that when you become a custodian of cultural knowledge, it becomes a responsibility. I really try to honor the story and the art form and present it in a new way. This is kind of my hope. People will be surprised, and in the process, they will learn about the universal nature of myths. This story touches the world in darkness. And who lights up? It could be the raven or Jesus – it’s a metaphor that people can understand. If you look at it closely, you can see that we have the same kind of human experience.

This is an opportunity to change people’s perspectives on what we do as indigenous people. It humanizes the Aboriginal perspective and declares the fact that we have endured. There’s a bit of a sense of pride in me in being able to show work in this context, and that’s something I profess: that’s what we are and that’s what we do.

What are some of the changes you have seen in the recognition of contemporary Aboriginal artists?

You have definitely grown. It’s an exciting time for indigenous cultures. There is a great motive for acknowledging the land, but this cannot be more than talk. Do not return the land to the original inhabitants. I mean, this is important. Nice to hear that. But it doesn’t really affect the dynamic right away. But more artist recognition, more performances, more commissions – this does something.

As artists in the old days, we were just making work for the community. Now, the chiefs of the house and the chiefs of the clans were not as financially empowered as they were when they owned all the land. They could commission totem poles and things to make, weave shilkat robes, make button blankets. Now, many clan leaders are important symbols of society, but they are not financially empowered the way they used to be. By lobbying for original artists to be accepted, into the public art context or to have high-profile performances, it leads to financial empowerment.

I work collaboratively with other Indigenous artists from around the world and this gives me perspective on my interest in my community. It is often a common experience with imperialism or oppression. After that, the community survives.

In many ways, artists are people who see things. They make things with their thoughts and hands to represent what is going on. It’s exciting to see what happens – art that looks really contemporary, like something new.

Your work has been welcomed in Aboriginal community centers, cultural museums, Fine Arts galleries and glass museums. Why do you think your business moves easily between these contexts?

I feel my work has always tried to achieve recognition as something more than “ethnic art”. But at the same time, this is what gives it its strength. It is tied to history, a personal connection through my ethnic background and maternal community all the way from my mother to my grandmother and grandmother. I am part of this chain.

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