‘I stayed with the spirit of the petroglyph’
Chloe French grew up steeped in the traditions of her Tlingit culture. She has been artistic her whole life, but it wasn’t until her children were grown and she retired that she could allow herself to work as an artist full time.
She taught herself how to appliqué and bead. Discovering Melton cloth, a heavy woolen fabric finished with a smooth face to conceal the weave, made the appliqué easy. Using buttons and beads made it exciting.
“In tribal ceremonies, beaded bibs are often worn with robes or by themselves,” French said. “As soon as the ceremony or dance is over, they are taken off. I wanted to make something that could be worn as decoration all the time. (photos below)
"I got the idea for a collar. By using petroglyph designs and button robe techniques, I found the perfect solution. The collar was new, but rooted in the past, making it accessible to everyone.”
When UAMN Ethnology Collection Manager Angela Linn saw the Tináa Art Auction catalog, an event sponsored by the Sealaska Heritage Institute in Southeast Alaska, she was immediately drawn to the beaded collar on the cover. “That was the piece I wanted.” (top photo)
Linn was not familiar with French’s work but she was struck by the use of traditional techniques. “It has ancestors in our collection. That appealed to me.”
Some of the questions she asks when determining whether to include a piece in the ethnology collection includes whether the artwork was made by a fulltime artist and whether it was made to be sold in a gallery. “Do the pieces include traditional iconography but use media that is not traditionally found in the culture?”
Listening to Angela Linn talk about the piece, it’s clear she sees the ethnological value. “Beaded collars are a traditional form of regalia. You can see examples of elaborate beaded collars in archival photos. The materials used are also traditional. The wool felt and the beads. Even the colors are traditional.”
The creative effort of an Alaska Native artist isn’t diminished by its inclusion in the ethnology collection. The traditions and stories of a culture are fueled by the creativity of its artists. And often creativity is found in our obsessions. In French’s case, she is taken with petroglyphs. They are images from the past, giving us a sense of place, of history linked with ours through time.
“We have come from a long line of people wishing to express themselves,” French said. “We can’t look at these images and have anything but wonder and respect for the people who made them. They are us.”
French says there is something about petroglyphs that is so human, a lasting imprint of our need to make a mark. “Petroglyphs are a one shot deal. Once the rock has been chipped, it can’t be put back together. The artist must keep going.
"The flaws become part of its life as an image. As an observer, we get a feel for the artist — not a perfected image, but a human one. This much more interesting to me than a perfected piece.”
French says the petroglyph featured in the beaded collar came from a book of images, this one from Baranof Island. “I realized after I appliquéd it to the first layer of Melton cloth, I had used the pattern upside down.”
She’s made three other collars with this same pattern, so this mistake made her laugh. She was very careful that it didn’t happen with the other three collars. “Now it is one of the little mistakes that make the collar more human. It adds to its story.”
French says the actual petroglyph is round and a perfect design for a collar. She made some modifications. “But I stayed with the spirit of the petroglyph.“
Linn says the beaded collar will join a prestigious traveling exhibit next year. “I got an email even before the crate containing French’s collar had been unpacked,” Linn said.
The curator of an exhibition on contemporary Native American fashion had seen the piece on social media and wondered if she could borrow it for a traveling exhibit called Native Fashion Now, which will run from November 2015 until March 2016.
That French’s collar will be among these 100 pieces sends a strong message about the innovative work of Alaska Native artists, Linn said. “Chloe’s collar is fantastic and will be appreciated simply for its aesthetic qualities. The history and culture that are embedded in the symbolism is what makes it a museum piece.”