I come with no weapons
Youth from Carcross interview Keith Wolfe Smarch about his recent completion of a dance screen to be placed in the house of learning centre.
Keith Wolfe Smarch belongs to the generation of Yukon artists who established the use of Tlingit art forms, sometimes with a considerable amount of effort. As a result, he regards traditional forms as being almost sacred; he reproduces them in a matter that is as unadulterated as possible. Keith is convinced that the formal elements – the ovoid, the U-shape and the split-U – that only occur in North West Coast art, will serve him as a source of inspiration for a long time to come. However, a number of young artists are already venturing to make their first experiments and are combining traditional forms with new ones. Keith has his misgivings about this development. He fears that Tlingit art will become diluted before it has had a chance to establish itself purely.
We call it a dance screen and it's just a backdrop for the dancers. We needed one in our Learning Center so we put this one together. We actually started making it in November. This was once a log and we milled it up. It took two months to dry the boards out.
I had all the boards lined up in my studio. We had the heat turned right down here and I would come in every day and flip the boards because they would warp. Once the boards were fully dry, then we would run them through a planer and a drum sander on the one side. We matched all the grains and colours as best we could and then glued it all together and proceeded to paint it.
It took two weeks to paint it, we did it in sections so we could handle it after we painted then moved to the stage of carving. What we do afterwards is clean up all the painted lines with knives because it's easier to do it this way; its easier to carve a straight line than paint a straight line.
So traditionally the Tlingits in the longhouses would always have a dance screen for the dancers, a doorway will be cut out of the center, and area they call they the belly or the womb, and the dancers will literally enter and exit out of the little doorway. Some Chiefs on the coast had a permanent screen right in their house and they would live behind the screen, this was their doorway.
The design received direction from Chief and Council and the Elders Council, they didn't want any Clan symbols. It represents a human a man, so you can see his head, his body, shoulder and down to the arm and his hand.
This is his thigh, his shin, foot and then there's the doorway here, where his stomach is. They didn't want any Clan symbol so we decided to design a human; eventually we're going to do one for the other end of the Learning Center. We're going to have one at each end and the other one will represent a woman.
Normally we use three colors: red, black and blue. Red represents life blood, black is protection, and in the old days we used to paint our face completely black. Finally the blue, this is usually a decorative element for Tlingit. Blue is our wealth and derived from copper oxide. The red came from red ochre and the black came from charcoal. We sometimes use white, for teeth, and eyes and other decorative areas. Whenever you see the “Open Hands” on our carvings, our poles or designs, It's a sign of peace. It means I come with no weapon.
I never did a dance screen before, I’ve always wanted to do one, I’m thankful and it’s been fun to do, but it has taken us a long time, and a lot of hours. I think we have close to 35 days carving of carving into this project, one chip at a time. Sometimes we have to stop because our arms gets tired so we switch hands and work the other side of our design.
There's rules to designing Tlingit traditional ways. There's strict rules to our designs and I'm a traditionalist. Red and black never touch, only in the fine points, some areas black can only touch. This particular design was meant to be carved, because the way we carve it, we use the wood as a third color, sometimes even a fourth color. We balance it with the woods characteristics.
Red and black are usually form line. It could be red or it could be black, primary and secondary and blue is tertiary, blue is only put on after you've carved it. I don't know if that's just the way they traditionally did it, but blue is definitely distinctive as Tlingit. We use so much of this blue that it's referred to as Tlingit blue. It's not actually a blue, it's more a blue green.
The most common shape in our art is the ovoid, it is the foundation of our art and there's a couple theories where that shape came from. One is it could represent a clamshell, another one is that it represents a vantage point of the ocean from the shore. My theory is a bit different when cupping your hands together into a shape, you can peer between the gaps of you hands and it creates a perfect ovoid, that’s the one I believe. Second, is “U” shapes, simply because they look like a “U”, we call them “U” shapes. We have crescents elements, crescents are breaks, they help emphasize other design elements. There’s also the “s” shapes, and they look like the letter “s”. Each of these elements are traditional and can be seen in many variation throughout the Tlingit designs.
It took me 10 years to really understand and master design and after ten years, I started trying to develop my own style, within the customary foundation of the design and staying within the rules. All of us carvers are artists and use the same components. We follow the same rules so it’s really hard to develop a personal style where people can recognize your art. It takes a long, long, time to refine an artists style. I’ve been carving professionally over 35 years now and I feel like I'm finally beginning to develop my style.