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Arts and Entertainment

2 new Anchorage Museum exhibits explore different Alaska themes

  • Author: Ben Anderson
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published February 2, 2012

At first glance, there's not much in common between two exhibits opening Friday at the Anchorage Museum. Tlingit artist Preston Singletary's "Echoes, Fire and Shadows" is a collection of elegantly crafted, blown-glass pieces that interpret Alaska Native myths in a modern medium and blends them with other indigenous cultures from around the world. Across a hallway, photographer Tim Remick's collection "After: Portraits from Denali" features 5-foot tall, high-definition photographs of climbers moments after they stumble into Denali's base camp, tired, stressed and dehydrated.

But taken together, there's a strange complement to the two exhibits, especially in their Alaska context -- one captures the beauty and rich cultural history of the state, the other the ruggedness and determination of its peoples. And both are impressive exhibits on their own.

Drawn home by heritage

Preston Singletary, whose great-grandmother moved from Sitka in the 1920s to Singletary's hometown in Seattle, hadn't always intended to tap into his Tlingit roots for his art. But following what he said was a "pretty urban" upbringing -- and after turning to glass blowing when a pursuit of music wasn't filling a void -- his cultural background lent itself to inspiration like nothing he'd ever tried before.

"In an effort to create something that was more distinctly my own in glass, I decided to turn to my heritage," Singletary said. "When I placed myself on that path, it kind of opened up a lot of doors."

Once those doors were opened, the art began to flow more naturally for Singletary.

"It wasn't my first choice, but it was something that has become very fulfilling, because it is about family, it's about community," Singletary said. "And the cultural connections, the more I nurture them, the more it gives me, the more inspiration that I get."

The process by which Singletary creates his art is an elaborate one -- he blows the glass, then dusts the outside with a glass powder the texture of powdered sugar. He shapes glass into the form he wants, then lets it cool from its 900-degree heating point. Once the glass is cooled, he outlines the design he wants to create and carves it with a knife, creating accents while revealing the color of glass underneath. Sometimes multiple pieces are fused together with additional heat to create one cohesive work of art.

Many of Singletary's pieces are equally elaborate, and illustrate numerous Tlingit and Alaska Native legends, including Raven stealing the sun and creation of the killer whale. Others are larger depictions of traditional amulets worn by shamans, while one of the largest pieces is a tryptic depicting a clan house, complete with house posts made of glass that weigh several hundred pounds apiece. There are also numerous masks illuminated so light dances on the glossy features and large eyes.

While the pieces depict Tlingit imagery, they're not strictly traditional works of art, and that combines the ancient with the modern in Singletary's works.

"In my mind it's a little bit of a play on modernism," Singletary said, "those kind of spare organic forms that are ornamented with Northwest coast designs."

Additionally, Singletary has worked with artists from other indigenous cultures, including the Maori of New Zealand and other Native American tribes from New Mexico. He is currently working with Tlingit Elder Walter Porter, who parallels Tlingit legend with other forms of spirituality.

"Working with Walter," Singletary said, "I gain a lot of a insight to how I could bring that into the artwork."

The result of Singletary's urban upbringing and late rediscovery of his Tlingit roots is a unique brand of Alaska Native art, at once culturally significant with modern sensibilities.

Too tired to smile

Just across the way from Singletary's delicate, glass-blown art is a more jarring scene: dozens of huge photographs lining the walls, depicting haggard, wind-burned faces of people who have just completed a grueling ascent and descent of Denali. Next to each photo is the person's age, the altitude they climbed to, and the number of days they were on the mountain.

According to photographer Tim Remick, his exhibition "After: Portraits of Denali" is about "dealing with the human experience, and our abilities to deal with stresses in our lives." It's also about age, growing old, and mortality, he said.

It's easy to see both aspects. Some of the portraits are listed as being only 26, 27 years old, but they all look older, with chapped lips and pale skin around their eyes where they've worn goggles along windswept slopes for weeks at a time. The men all have varying degrees of facial scruff, often with more than a hint of grey, and hair greasy with the detritus of hard climbing.

Several squint at the camera like it's a strange, foreign thing; the portraits are deeply personal, revealing every pore and mole and the sheen on the eyes. A few attempt a smile, but most come out as smirks, just a lip half-raised without teeth showing. Then it dawns on you -- they're too tired to smile.

Rimeck snapped the climbers in his base camp studio fresh from their descent of Denali, the highest peak in North America. He lured them in with a promise of beer and most were happy to sit down in his little mountain-made studio, in a chair made out of snow to snap the photo. Then he tried to capture the climber at the moment that they forgot they were about to be photographed.

"As the photographer, as I tell my students, we control the game," said Remick -- who also teaches photography at Alaska Pacific University and the University of Alaska Anchorage. "We get to decide when the shutter is going to get clicked. I would engage (the climbers) in conversation, then just sort of wait. At first you had that antsyness where they're sitting in front of the camera, then they relax, and then you get the reality of the situation. And that's sort of what you wait for."

Remick, who grew up in Virginia but has lived in Alaska for the last 15 years, attempted his own climb of Denali in 2002, but only made it to the Headwall camp at about the 14,000-foot mark before his climbing party was socked in by weather. He said that he'd like to try again someday, but having a 4-year-old daughter at home has changed the way he views risk.

Still, he remains fascinated by humanity's obsession with activities that push the human body to its limits -- he previously photographed runners after completing 100-mile ultramarathons -- and the defiance of aging and mortality. And he said that Alaskans have a unique relationship with the beautiful landscape that surrounds them, which makes them fascinating studies.

"The one thing that I've learned from this state is that it's the people that makes the photography so special," Remick said. "The scenery is gorgeous, don't get me wrong ... but I feel like we have a shortage of photography that addresses individuals in the state."

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