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Decked out: Skateboards, skis are Southeast Alaska artist's canvas

  • Author: Steve Quinn
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 19, 2015

JUNEAU -- It could have been just the hobby Tlingit artist Rico Worl chose: painting formline designs -- art where lines taper and swell, creating shapes to depict human and animals -- on skateboards for friends and relatives.

Instead these boards -- or "decks" in skating parlance -- anchor a broad collection of art found on skis, snowboards, earrings, T-shirts, playing cards and even basketballs.

Each hangs on walls or sits on shelves in Worl's Trickster Co. store in downtown Juneau. Jewelry is his passion, but the decks bring him national acclaim among museum curators and those melding art with sport.

For now, a set of decks hangs in the Burke Museum at the University of Washington and the University of Alaska's Museum of the North in Fairbanks. Burke also sells Worl's boards in its gift shop. And soon the set in Fairbanks will be on loan to the Peabody Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Back home, Worl toils over his 6-by-3-foot work bench set against the shop's back wall with a painted raven that appears to keep a watchful eye over Worl as he works.

Worl says he wants to ensure that Native art is produced by Native artists, not an overseas manufacturer working off a mold to produce kitsch work promoted as authentic.

He does this not only by producing his own work, but also by featuring that of other emerging Native artists, including his sister Crystal Worl, Alison Bremner and Jerrod Galanin.

"What I'm trying to represent is that Native people aren't just something of the past," Worl said. "We are here today, and we are still inspired by stories we hear today."

Dimond High graduate

The 30-year-old of Tlingit and Athabascan descent graduated from Anchorage's Dimond High School in 2002. He went to the University of Arizona to pursue a physics degree, then had a change of heart, transferring to the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a degree in anthropology.

While growing up mostly in Anchorage, Worl spent time each summer in Juneau with his grandmother, Rosita Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage Institute, and his cousins.

Immersion into his Native heritage took hold in Rosita Worl's home.

"Dinners were usually about Native culture, Native politics or state politics," Rico Worl says. "The biggest thing is the way she instilled cultural pride in me and my siblings and cousins. That pride is the most important thing I learned from her. That's given me the strength and motivation in almost everything I do."

Worl's skateboard artwork began about eight years ago simply as a favor to his cousin. Then another family member placed a request. Soon friends chimed in. Others followed, allowing Worl a new canvas for designs that for years remained either in his head or on paper.

"It's a natural space," Worl said. "My favorite part is being at the markets and seeing youths' eyes light up (and) the fact that it's a Native design on a skateboard, that makes them happy."

Deck design soon became a home-based business while he worked as arts director for Sealaska Heritage Institute, the cultural nonprofit arm of Sealaska Corp, one of the 12 Native region corporations created in 1971 by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Today Sealaska represents about 22,000 shareholders in Southeast Alaska.

'Inspire young kids'

Worl quickly attracted attention from those on the frontlines of skateboard art, including museum curators and other artists.

Among of them is Todd Harder, one of the pioneers behind skateboard art, who boasts one of the largest board collections. Harder first saw Worl's work at an art show. He said he believed Worl was the first Alaska Native to place designs on skateboards.

Harder, a founder of the All Nations Skate Jam competition, says there is plenty of room for new market entries like Worl, and he found space in his Adrian, Michigan, skate and print shop for a couple of Worl's decks. On its website, the All National Skate Project is described as "a unique skateboard-centered outreach program that aims to provide safe and healthy recreational activities and lifestyle choice to Native youth who are at increased risk of childhood obesity, diabetes, participation in gang-related activities, drug abuse, and suicide. Skateboarding is the fastest growing sport on Native-American reservations ..."

Adds Harder: "It's a great way to tie in our culture with something contemporary and also inspire young kids. It's great that Rico is up there doing it. Young kids will see that and think they could be the next Rico.

"When we started All Nations Skate Jam, there were only seven Native-owned companies. I'm hoping in the next few years there are 50. People say, 'You won't sell as many boards.' Probably not, but we have a greater mission."

Worl has long wanted to open a retail store that would introduce artists and their work to the public. Last summer, he opened Trickster Co. on Front Street in downtown Juneau.

It sits across from what soon will be the Walter Soboleff Center, the new home for Sealaska Heritage and a culture house named for the revered Tlingit elder whose lives touched many before he died at age 102 in May 2011.

The opening came sooner than Worl anticipated, but the vacant space and business plan his parents helped draft came together. As his shop filled up with diverse inventory, Worl's boards became fixtures at museums in Seattle and Fairbanks.

Art in everyday items

In Seattle, two boards are part of an exhibit called Here & Now: Native Artists Inspired. Worl's boards meld the historic with the contemporary, said Katie Bunn-Marcuse, Burke's associate director for the Bill Holm Center for the Study of Northwest Coast Art.

"People find Rico's work very engaging, because it's an object they expect to see in everyday life but not in a museum and not often in connection with Northwest Coast art work," Bunn-Marcuse said.

"The art is applied to the most important ceremonial object but also the most functional everyday items," she said. "It's keeping with the way Northwest Coast-designed art has been applied to everyday things people used in their houses and in their lives."

In Fairbanks, four boards hang side by side depicting a design that could just as easily be found woven onto a Chilkat blanket. Called the "Chilkat Pattern Boards," they soon will be part of a traveling exhibit with the first stop in Boston's Peabody Museum at Harvard University.

Museum officials say Worl is slowly creating a growing identity for himself that will help the store become a signature piece of Juneau's downtown.

"He's trying to bring Northwest Coast art and designs into the 21st century," said Aldona Jonaitis, the museum's director who has written several books on Northwest Coast art and artists. "I think Rico's work has democratized northern Northwest Coast art and brought it out into a wider range of possible audiences."

Wherever the boards hang, Worl works quietly -- almost anonymously -- at his store engraving new jewelry and sketching the latest designs, all while finding space for his work and that of other artists.

His father, Rod Worl, and stepmother, Dawn Worl, began a wholesale and distribution arm to get Trickster art and artists in other stores and open markets. It's a collaborative push that Worl and other artists featured in his store hope will help authentic work supplant the kitsch items that have no connection to a Native artist.

"The appropriated Native kitsch sold in tourists' shops takes away jobs from Native artists and trivializes our cultures," said Alison Bremner, a Tlingit artist from Yakutat who spends much of her time in the Seattle area working with other master artists such as David A. Boxley and Preston Singletary.

"It sends false messages to the customers," said Bremner, who produced her own skateboard designs and jewelry for Worl. "Rico's shop sends a very positive message about authenticity."

Worl is careful to distinguish mass-produced work with ties to original designs, such as his, from something else that simply has no ties to a Native artist. It's these knockoffs that Jonaitis calls "scandalous."

In other words, playing cards with Tlingit designs may be mass produced but the designs belong to Worl rather than an overseas company with no connection to an artist.

As he places the final engraving touches on an order for 100 pairs of earrings -- a labor-intensive endeavor, with each completed by his own hands -- Worl looks to a wall with blackboard paint to see what's next on his list.

"There are different levels of satisfaction I get from designing a product, sending it to a manufacturer and getting it back, which is fine; I like seeing how it comes out," Worl said. "But to make something out of something else, that is a different experience. That's special."

Steve Quinn is a Juneau-based freelance writer who has covered Alaska Native culture, lifestyles and business for six years.

CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, the first name of Dawn Worl, Rico's stepmother, was incorrect.

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