Light and legend: Glass artist has Alaska roots

Mike Dunham
Preston Singletary's "Wolf Hat," is a blown and sandcarved glass piece that he created in 1989. It is from the collection of James Sherman.
"Raven Steals the Sun," a blown, hot-sculpted and sandcarved glass piece was created in 2001.
Museum of Glass
Preston Singletary's "Clan House"
Photo courtesy of Museum of Glass, Tacoma, Wash.
"Raven Steals the Sun," a blown, hot-sculpted and sandcarved glass piece was created in 2008.
Singletary works in the hot shop at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Wash.
Museum of Glass
Singletary works in the hot shop at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Wash.
Museum of Glass

Born in San Francisco in 1963, Preston Singletary has lived in Seattle almost ever since. But Alaska has a claim on him. His maternal grandmother was full-blood Tlingit from a Sitka area family. Traditional Northwest Indian themes and forms are fused into the glass works that have made him an internationally known artist.

On Friday, the Anchorage Museum will unveil the first major exhibit of Singletary's work in Alaska, "Echoes, Fire and Shadows," a show that originated with the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Wash., in 2009.

Singletary was a teenager when a friend, Dante Marioni, introduced him to glassmaking. Marioni was the son of Paul Marioni, one of the glass pioneers who made Puget Sound a hotbed of artistic glassmaking.

When he graduated from high school, Singletary got a job as night watchman at Seattle's Glass Eye Studio. But in short order he became a glassblower and began learning the trade by creating paperweights and ornaments.

The big seller at the time was paperweights that used volcanic ash from the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. But Singletary wasn't born to make baubles for the tourist trade. He worked constantly to expand his technique and artistic "vocabulary." Over the course of 15 years he trained and traveled, learning traditional Venetian techniques from Italian masters and producing contemporary Scandinavian designs.

"I was learning the different techniques to blow glass in a very controlled fashion," he said in a phone call from his Seattle studio last week. "Then, around 1988, I decided to dabble in Northwest designs and began the process of reinventing myself."

The fusion of Tlingit art and glass can be seen in "Wolf Hat," a 1989 glass version of the traditional Northwest Indian head covering, similar to his "Tlingit Hat" from 1993, part of the Anchorage Museum's collection.

The Anchorage piece is displayed upside down, looking more like a vase than a hat, with light coming from above. It's how most or all of his hat designs are now exhibited. The light adds a fresh and transfixing dimension to the Tlingit form-line designs familiarly seen on wood or in fabric.

That wasn't evident at first. At his first show of Tlingit-inspired work, an aunt told him to aim the spotlight directly over a hat. Melissa Post, curator of the Museum of Glass, recalled the impact in the gorgeous book that serves as the exhibit's catalog.

"The room full of spectators released an audible "ahhhh." Inverting the form and bathing it in light produced dramatic shadows, animating the glass and enriching the iconography and the viewer's experience. Singletary had transformed this otherwise symbolic and decorative headpiece into a visually arresting entity. This form would become iconic within his work."

Singletary has become one of the best-known glass artists in America, with work now in major collections around the country. The upcoming show contains the range of his creative work, including the crest hats, masks and rattles and a sample of earlier work influenced by Scandinavian, Maori, Lower 48 Indian and classical designs and imagery.

The exhibit includes his spectacular "Clan House," 16 feet long and 10 feet high, an enormous triptych of kiln-cast glass, his largest work to date.

"It's different from what I normally do," he said. Kiln casting offers a "little bit more of a controlled environment" than blowing, but the complexity of the piece required "a lot of forethought ... figuring out multiple steps in advance. Big slabs of glass were cast in molds, disks were cut with water jets, inlaid and laminated. The big central screen had to be fabricated thick enough to allow a "flash" of colored glass on one side. "That allowed me to carve through the thickness of the glass with sandblasting, basically carving through layers of color."

The piece is "quite heavy, too," he added, requiring an elaborate hanging system.

The most difficult part of his work, he said, is "conceptualizing different ways to showcase the art and the culture. I'm working with some elders and different mentors who help me understand the art form and cultural connections."

Mentors like Tlingit storyteller Walter Porter, who has made a detailed study of world mythologies, legends, parables and symbolic tales. Porter and Singletary will give a public talk at the museum on Saturday.

"He reads into my work and gives me different insights," said Singletary.

In the exhibit catalog, Porter comments on Singletary's "Raven Steals the Sun," a sculptural interpretation of the well-known creation story that is a dramatic part of the show.

"Singletary's combination of glass and light brings Tlingit design and art to a higher level," Porter writes. "We find ourselves mesmerized as we focus on this great piece of art, the hub in a whole wheel of connections."

Porter sums up Singletary's art, saying, "The grace and completeness with which culture, symbols and art are brought together, show us without words what it is to let the world go and remember who we are."

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.

Anchorage Daily News