At the Smithsonian American Indian Museum in Washington, D.C., a fascinating play of light and shadow tells the story of the beginning of time. “Now I started thinking about the shadows as a kind of spirit in the work,” said artist Preston Singletary. “It’s something that, you know, when the lighting is right and all the volumetric qualities of the glass … it really had a mystical appeal.”
The exhibition illustrates a Native American folk tale, completely rendered in glass.
The Raven and the Box of Daylight is a traveling exhibit created by Singletary, a member of the Tlingit tribe of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. The show, which takes place near the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, tells the story of how the world was given the light of day thanks to the insatiable curiosity of a white raven.
“The raven is some kind of supernatural creature,” he said. “He’s sneaky and he’s a shape-shifter. He can change shape. It is a time when the world is in darkness. And so the Raven decides that it wants to find that daylight.”
Singletary is something of a shapeshifter – taking glass and turning it into the characteristic shapes of traditional Tlingit art. “I always say that the native culture has a defining historical connection to glass because it came through the bead trade,” he said. “It was something special. You know, Manhattan was traded for pearls.
“But they were quickly exploited, adopted into culture and used for decoration or trade or whatever.”
In Singletary’s hands, the two worlds converge as the glass takes on new contours and he carves (via sandblasting) to reveal layers of color and meaning.
Singletary said, “When I work with glass, I feel like it brings a new dimension to Indigenous art and it really has the ability to engage people. And so if you attract them, you are good with showing something to them.
“I like the idea of glass having a sense of strength, but it’s also very fragile,” he said.
Singletary began working in a glass factory making Christmas ornaments from the ashes of the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state. But it was at the Pilchuck Glass School, founded by the legendary Dale Chihuly, that he began to form his signature “old meets new” style.
The real test was when he showed his work at Celebration, an annual gathering of tribes in Southeast Alaska: “I think they were surprised. The elder was looking at this competition – there is a juried art competition – and some of my pieces were entered and they said, “Yes, we have these pieces here, there are wood carvings and these beautiful baskets, and now we have …glass? ‘
“And it was kind of cool because they didn’t criticize or judge it. And I think that’s the thing, when you talk to anthropologists and people who like to know the “facts,” and they’re like, “Well, that’s never been done before.” And that’s why there’s really no place here.”
“It can’t be traditional,” Luciano asked.
“Yes, it’s supposed to be traditional. But really, it just keeps you in such a cultural pen.”
And this cultural corral is one of the myths that Singletary wants to destroy forever.
“I love having this opportunity to really make the case for Indigenous art to come out into the contemporary art world more broadly; that’s what I’d like to do,” he said.
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Story by Anthony Laudato. Editor: Emmanuele Cecchi.