Arts & Culture

Museum of Glass exhibit tells Native creation story

Preston Singletary’s studio is filled with the sounds of Native American instruments, interspersed with thrums of an electric guitar.

Organic, spare, modern-art inspired glass sculptures, decorated with designs in the style of Northwest coast indigenous art, sit on the tables. A small dog wags its tail and barks excitedly, running between the table legs.

Singletary, a Seattle-based Native American glass artist, has opened a breathtaking and evocative new exhibit at Tacoma’s Museum of Glass. “Raven and the Box of Daylight” leads viewers through the story of Raven and how he brought light to the world, one of many Tlingit creation stories.

The exhibit will be on display there until Sept. 2, when it will begin its tour of museums around the country.

Audio recordings of two Tlingit elders telling the story intertwine with moving projections to create the exhibit’s background. The integration of audio and visuals, Singletary told The News Tribune, is meant to make the viewer feel transported to the Northwest coast.

Singletary’s sculptures, totems, human, animal and basket forms in exquisite blown glass illustrate the story step by step.

“Raven is one of the primary figures in the mythology,” Singletary explained, discussing the inspiration for his exhibit. “There’s a lot of stories about Raven and how he brought order to the world.”

At the entrance, a milky white glass Raven beckons viewers to step into the exhibit.

“In the beginning … the world was in darkness and Raven was a white bird. He was a shapeshifter, a trickster, and he could take on different forms, which was represented by his white color,” the curator Miranda Belarde-Lewis said in an interview with South Sound Magazine.

In the exhibit’s story, created by compiling several versions from different Tlingit traditions, Raven finds out that a wealthy man controls daylight.

Tired of the darkness, he changes his form several times, until the man’s daughter swallows him as a hemlock needle in her drinking water.

Raven becomes a human baby in her womb and then is born into the family.

The wealthy man keeps boxes of light inside the clan house. One box holds the stars, another the moon and another the sun.

Thinking that Raven is his grandson, the man lets him play with the boxes. Raven opens each box, releasing the stars, the moon and lastly the sun.

After Raven opens the last box, the man learns his grandson’s true identity. He holds Raven over a cloud of black smoke in the fire. Raven becomes a black bird and can no longer change form.

The last room of the exhibit shows the world in daylight. Glass faces, sculpted by Singletary, illustrate the animal people, fish people, bird people and humans, who all ran to different habitats when Raven released the light.

Scenes of movement and shifting bodies, created by Native American artist Juniper Shuey, flicker in the background.

“(I wanted to) tell the story in glass sculpture and objects to make people feel as though they’re walking through the story,” Singletary said.

The soundtrack in the last room showcases some of Singletary’s own music from his band Khu.eex, which mixes Native sounds and rock music.

“I’m a musician as well, so I really wanted to have an audio element to it, sort of a soundscape that would enhance the experience,” he said. “I wanted the Tlingit language being heard in the gallery space.”

‘I started as a night watchman’

Singletary didn’t start working with glass as an artist but as a worker at a Seattle glass factory.

“I started as a night watchman,” he said. “I was then moved to the floor and put right into the production process. We were making Christmas balls and paper weights, things like that.”

Singletary worked in the factory for three years but didn’t get exposure to glass artists until 1984 when he started to visit Seattle’s Pilchuck Glass School, which teaches classes in glass art and offers residencies for artists to pursue their projects.

Singletary began to study traditional European glass art with his friend Dante Marioni, also a glass artist. He studied Scandanavian design with artists in Sweden and spent time in Italy working with Venetian glass masters.

“Dante and I were working together a lot studying Italian glassmaking techniques,” he recounted. “By 1988 I started to dabble in the traditional designs, the Tlingit style.”

Singletary’s foray into Tlingit artistic styles began at home, where he spent hours copying designs and forms he found in books. Once he felt he had mastered copying designs, he moved on to creating his own and learning from other Native artists.

“There’s a traditional proportion and balance to all the elements,” he said. “You have to learn how those all work together. I like to equate it to calligraphy. Once you understand the rules of the elements, you can create your own personal style.”

Singletary begins each of his glass sculptures with the blowing process.

Once the glass has cooled, he covers the form with a stencil in order to draw the designs onto it. He cuts out each form with an X-Acto knife, to expose the areas he’s going to carve.

The last step, the sandblasting process, wears away the surface of the glass. Singletary said he does that to make contrast in the designs.

Totem forms, like his most recent work “Killer Whale Totem,” Singletary casts in lead crystal. Though traditionally carved in wood, he uses molds to create in glass a piece.

“My work with glass transforms that notion that Native artists are only best when traditional materials are used,” Singletary’s tear sheet reads.

“It has helped advocate on behalf of all indigenous people — affirming that we are still here — that we are declaring who we are through our art in connection to our culture.”

A trip to Japan to teach and travel inspired Singletary to investigate the varying perspectives that different cultures might bring to glass art.

“I was really struck by the sensibility that Japanese glass artists bring to the aesthetic of the objects that they make,” Singletary said. “I was convinced that the Native perspective could be something really interesting.”

Since then, Singletary has collaborated with artists from many different backgrounds, including other Native American, Maori, Hawaiian and Australian Aboriginal artists.

“By collaborating with these artists, it gives me a sense of, ‘How do we interpret our culture for the modern age?” he said.

“Raven and the Box of Daylight”

Where: Museum of Glass, 1801 Dock St., Tacoma

When: Through Sept. 2, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Cost: Adults $17; seniors (62 +), students, military $14; children (6-12) $5; museum members/children under 6 free; AAA members $15; EBT cardholders $1 per person or $2 per family.