Two years ago, when I heard through the grapevine that Sealaska Heritage Institute was planning on building a cultural center where the old Juneau Lyle’s Hardware once was, I got excited and thought of a couple of artist buddies of mine who I felt needed to be represented in the new structure. So I called up Preston and said he needed to get his foot in the door and make sure SHI has a monumental piece of his work. He asked what I had in mind. I asked him what would it take to construct a life-size, glass house screen front. He chuckled and said that the Seattle Art Museum’s house front was as large as he thought he could do. I said I thought it needed to be larger; he laughed again. He agreed that he would check out the engineering logistics with his production crew: could it be done? After some research with his production and installation teams, the answer was yes!
We spent a week or two drafting up a proposal for SHI; it would be a collaborative project since I’ve had some experience in glass work with Preston years prior and I am a fairly good designer (with always room for more improvement!); Preston and I felt pretty good about submitting the concept. A few months later, though both of us submitted the proposal as a team, he received a letter addressed only to him from SHI stating they liked the concept though they did not want my design concept. We both thought it weird that SHI made no statement about “working with Clarissa” on what design they wanted on the house front instead. They simply stated they didn’t want my design (which I interpret as my name) being associated with the glass front. After reading the letter a couple of times, I knew what “they” were up to. I knew “they” didn’t want me in the picture; they wanted a close relative instead, and I had an inkling who that particular relative was.
Preston asked me if I felt okay about him going ahead on his own instead of the initial teamwork we had planned. I told him that initially I wanted him to have a piece of his work represented in the cultural center, so even though he could have told SHI that we were working as a team, I told him to go on without me because I knew SHI would come up with whatever reasons to not have my name associated with any monumental art in the cultural center, and I wanted to avoid any further denials.
About a year later in the Fall of 2014, SHI sent out an announcement requesting apprentices to work with Preston on the glass panel. Of course, I did not apply. I knew SHI already had the person(s) selected, one of them being the young relative to SHI’s president. The call for apprentices was the legal procedure they had to endure. Preston was given no say who his apprentices would be though he was very happy Nicholas Galanin was “chosen.”
You, the reader, may interpret this blog entry as a bitter response to being edged out. You may also think that I write about these kinds of sensitive issues on my blog or elsewhere. Not so. This may be the first time (and most likely not the last) I have written about an unjust act on my blog. I may speak about unpleasant injustice or opinions to others face to face, but I am not one to write about injustice, especially in an art blog.
However, I have made an exception because I realize I made a mistake in the course of this story. There is no one else to blame about me not being “included.” When SHI “edged me out” of the art project, and I had told Preston to go on without me; I was not honoring myself as a one-of-a-kind, female, Tlingit, full-time artist of nearly 40 years; this is where I made a big mistake. There’s no other Tlingit or any other female artist out of all the Northwest Coast tribes, who lives now or lived before my time, who has ever accomplished all that I have designed and created in a variety of works. I realized that even now there is no other Native female artist from Alaska who comes close to my caliber of artistry. As the elder from the western TV film series would say: “…no brag, just fact…” How am I to be honored by others if I am not loyal to myself?
This particular story is a big lesson to myself. My mother always said I was too generous with others and that I always “sell myself short” and when people recognize this, there will always be those who take advantage of people like me without intention of giving back. This concept did not ride home to me until I saw a few photos of the making of this art installation on Facebook. I felt a ton of bricks crashing into the core of my being. I was depressed for a few days; I let myself down, but I looked within myself for my answers.
So why do I tell this story here? It’s for me. First, this story is to remind myself of how I have been all my life; it is to remind myself to forgive myself for not honoring myself, not being loyal to who I am and what I do and what I have become and continue in my human becoming. Second, I tend to forgive and forget, even this is a lesson I must learn and retain, else I repeat the same pattern, going through the school of hard knocks and never earning any credits. Why do we need to acknowledge and earn our credits? So we can “graduate!” Hello!? — I have always said “Patience Is Worth Waiting For” and this definitely applies to the patience any of us need as we continue to “grow up!”
Though this was a big lesson to go through regarding this project, I bear no hard feelings towards SHI nor Preston. Like anyone else, they have nothing to do with my self-worth. I had a wake-up call about my lack of self-respect, loyalty to self with honor. Although SHI has hired me to do small projects like book covers, I have known for awhile where I stand with SHI regarding large projects whether they benefit me and/or others; I have learned to work around them because I just want my ideas put out there and get done. AND, I am proud of my friend Preston and his great piece of work. The inclusion of his work was my initial idea; my friend is now represented in the art collection of Sealaska. What more can I ask for? I helped him get there, and I can pat myself on the back for this!
Read more about the details of this art installation online at the Juneau Empire: