Birthday Bio

Clarissa_&Kids

Clarissa and her children, Ursala, Lily and Kahlil – July 2011

A couple of weeks ago, one of my apprentices asked me if I would write a bio of myself that explained when I began to do my art and why.  She said she had to choose someone who had influenced her life to become an artist; she choose me.  This was an assignment she needed to present at her art class.  My initial response was “Gee, I inspired her to become an artist?  But I don’t want to write about me, it is so boring to go back that far and talk about who, what where when and why…”  However, I gave her my word that I would do this for her that night.  So, I “set the stage” with low lighting and a cup of tea; I do this whenever I have to write about my personal life to help me focus with very little struggle – then with very little editing, the words just flowed from my head down through to the keyboard onto the computer screen.  Here’s what came…

19 January 2015

Sitting in the direct heat of the fake firelight of the electric Amish heater in my studio, always bundled in my sheepskin coat, sheepskin boots and hat because the heating device is not large enough to heat this one room where I work and sleep, I am never quite warm in Winter, though it’s better than being outside right now with 0 degree starlit snow. I reflect upon my life as an artist and wonder where it all started and if living the life of a full-time artist, especially now in a place without running water, without sewer, and without sufficient heat, was and continues to be, worth it.

No matter what age, for the past 59 years, I’ve always been a child of creativity, with a drive that is endless. I exist on 6 hours sleep a night; from the time my eyes are awakened by the early dawn until I suddenly stagger to my bed 18 hours later; like I am going-going-going, then gone! It’s only in the past couple of years that I realized that not everyone is like this; where have I been?

38 years ago today, my first child Kahlil was born, named after Kahlil Gibran who wrote many inspiring books including The Prophet, Spirits Rebellious, and my favorite The Broken Wings.  Spiritually-inclined at a very young age, anything written about Christ had to be read; any paintings, prints and photos of Jesus had to be studied, so natural it was to read all of Gibran’s works when I was a young adult. And even though in the western way of living having a child at 20 was considered young, it was natural for me to think it normal because our Tlingit culture had the wisdom to know children are a gift of God.

My parents guided me into the way they were conditioned to get a “real job” to secure a pension plan to retire in 40 years.  This worked for a little while.  From the age of 14 to 20 I had real jobs working as a librarian assistant, a home-health aid for the elderly, a clerk typist for the Governor and for the Bureau of Indian Affairs Division of Contracting, until of course Kahlil was born. Being a new mother was challenging; I was not a natural-born mother because I was such a tom-boy and it was next to impossible to stay indoors day in and day out while the baby napped, I had to keep up with the diaper changes and laundry, and he had to be nursed every 2 hours 24-7! Holy cow!

To keep my sanity I turned to gardening; it got me outdoors yet close to home! I turned to drawing, crocheting and sewing. While he took his naps, and directly after putting the entire household to bed each night, I’d stay awake ‘till at least midnight, creating; it was my therapy! During the raising of my three children, I made a living over the next decades in a variety of ways: besides designing and making Tlingit ceremonial regalia in button blanket, Chilkat and Ravenstail weavings, I was an entrepreneur before I knew what that meant.  I made hats, I sewed custom-made clothing, created costumes for local theatre companies, owned a landscape gardening company, and was co-owner of an online newspaper.  In the 70s and early 80s, I took up learning our traditional arts from some of the best artists of their time: carving, regalia-making, traditional song and dance, metal-smithing, basketry, Chilkat and Ravenstail weaving. Just before my children were grown up and gone I had created a name for myself as one of the few, if not the only, Tlingit women who has been a full-time artist working in all of the above mediums for nearly 40 years, all in the name of keeping my sanity and being a stay-at-home-self-employed-mother because I did what my mother recommended I do: stay home with my children.

In a few years I will be 65; do I see myself retiring soon? No way. I have no pension plan; I have no savings; and I surely do not have an inheritance.   I cannot afford to retire. And what would I retire to!? Would I retire to taking vacations? What for?…vacations are boring; I don’t want to relax – relaxing is a lot of work! Would I retire to volunteering at something?   I been there done that volunteering all my life with the house concerts I used to produce in my own home; with the children’s theatre I used to co-produce; with the art shows and classes I used to teach, just to name a few.   Would I retire to what most people retire to? Watching TV from the couch. What for? Is that really fun, is it productive, is it creative, does it do anyone any good? The only results I see from watching TV is weight gain—too much potato chips!

Would I retire to what some of us retire to? Art and music.

Hello? I am already there; I have been creating art and playing music all my adult life. Does this mean I’ve been retired all my life?   Hmmm…an interesting perspective.

It looks like I will continue doing what I have been doing for almost 40 years.  Why change now?  I’m in the groove.

My children now have families of their own. Each of my children and their spouses are self-employed artists. I have watched them struggle with making ends meet like the way their father and I made ends meet never knowing where our next paycheck would come from and if next month’s bills would get paid. I watch them live like I have, not afford brand new cars, not take any vacations, not have the latest styles of clothing, all the while living with tension about the ability to keep a roof over their heads, mouths fed, and clothing clean. However, there’s a sense of pride and awe that I feel when I see the fact that they stay at home with their children, making wholesome meals from scratch, tending to a flourishing garden, doing their “art” and their little kids “working” right alongside them: happy. These are values I did not realize were taught to them by my own example, someone who has passionate creativity, a drive that has always been driven, at the edge.

Kahlil is a professional film-maker/director who also teaches film a couple of days a week at the Institute of American Indian Arts; his wife Miki is a counselor at the Santa Fe Arts Academy; their 7-year-old Violet enjoys chess tournaments, sewing, ice-skating, gymnastics and basketball. Lily is an award-winning, professional storyteller/actress and also a Ravenstail/Chilkat weaver and teacher; her husband Ishmael is also a professional storyteller/actor, excellent writer who recently published his first book of poetry. They have four children who are being home-schooled. Ursala is an oil painter, block-print maker, graphic artist/web designer, and is president of a local Charter school she is starting; her husband Chris is a lead singer/songwriter in his band, a sculptor and a house painter.  Their two daughters are obviously following their footsteps!  My children and grandchildren live fully.

To my best of my ability, I live a life of integrity. I keep watch of what I do to see what I believe. My offspring and my work is love made visible. I follow my heart because my heart follows the source of creativity that inspires me and continues to drive me. I am old enough to look back upon my life and enjoy it a second time around. All my relations, my parents, my children and their children are proof of the legacy that I co-created and will leave. And when I leave, my conscious will be clear and free, knowing all that I loved and lived, was worth it.

1 Comment

  1. I have long sensed the magic you weave into your robes, an expression of who you are. However in reading your Bio and in conjunction with awakenings in my own path… I am more deeply appreciating the depth of your acceptance of the beauty of who “You” are. As I growth more confident in discovering my passion, you truly are an example of how passion can be discovered and expressed, life lived to the limits. Such a pleasure to be on the Path with you.

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