Who Am I? Exhibition
Oil on Feather, 2019
Preston Singletary (American, b. 1963)
Blown, cased and sand carved glass
Gift in memory of Lori A. Jacobson from Jason D. Kogan. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.
When I began working with glass in 1982, I had no idea that I'd be so connected to the material in the way that I am. It was only when I began to experiment with using designs from my Tlingit cultural heritage that my work began to take on a new purpose and direction.
Over time, my skill with the material of glass and traditional form line design has strengthened and evolved, allowing me to explore more fully my own relationship to both my culture and chosen medium. This evolution, and subsequent commercial success, has positioned me as an influence on contemporary indigenous art.
Through teaching and collaborating in glass with other Native American, Maori, Hawaiian, and Australian Aboriginal artists, I've come to see that glass brings another dimension to indigenous art. The artistic perspective of indigenous people reflects a unique and vital visual language which has connections to the ancient codes and symbols of the land, and this interaction has informed and inspired my own work.
My work with glass transforms the notion that Native artists are only best when traditional materials are used. It has helped advocate on the behalf of all indigenous people—affirming that we are still here—that that we are declaring who we are through our art in connection to our culture.
My work continues to evolve and connect my personal cultural perspective to current modern art movements, and I have received much attention for striving to keep the work fresh and relevant. I have been honored that my success has inspired other artists from underrepresented indigenous cultures to use glass and other non-traditional materials in their work, and hope that I can continue to encourage more innovation in this area as my career progresses.
Excerpt from Preston Singletary’s artist website:
As a curator, you make choices – objects for exhibitions, art to acquire for the collection, how to exhibit the art, even what color to paint a wall. These choices are not made lightly. There are years of research that inform these choices. Research on artists and art history, the art already within the collection, art in other collections, new artists who may fill gaps in the collection, and always the history and contemporary issues that bring context to the art you choose. I can’t say that I always make the correct choices, it is a constant process of learning from those who chose before you and the mistakes of your choices as you move forward.
When I came to University Museums I had an opportunity to start making more choices that would affect the collection not just for me, but those who come after me, along with the entire campus community. When I think about art, which I do a lot more than then most, I think about the experiences with art that I carry with me to this day. The painting that I visited nearly every week at my first job out of college at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. A painting by an 18th century French artist, whom I knew had died rather young, who portrayed a well-known clownish character with such sadness and humanity that I couldn’t stop looking. Why was he so alone in a scene full of people on stage? Are we all playing the characters we are told to be? Will loneliness like this haunt me one day? That painting left a mark on who I am to this day and the questions it posed continue to resonate. Because art should resonate and make us ask questions.
I had long admired the glass of Preston Singletary. He creates art that is informed by and speaks to his past and present as Tlinglit and the importance of his culture. The depth of narrative in each of his sculptures is immense. His art speaks of a culture whose powerful visual language is continued by Singletary in a medium not known to many Native and indigenous artists, a fact that Singletary is actively trying to change. He uses the imagery that is an inherent part of who he is in a medium that will bring the beliefs and stories of the Tlingit to people all over the world, while connecting glass to a new world of exceptionally creative Native and indigenous artists.
The acquisition of Oil on Feather was an important choice for me. It is a sculpture that addresses contemporary issues, along with an immense past. As University Museums slowly builds the contemporary glass collection, I have an opportunity to make choices on the direction of the collection, towards inclusivity and diversity in a medium that hasn’t always been accessible to most. To show students a glass artist that might look like them or imagery they may recognize is the first step in allowing art to be inspirational.
That painting in the National Gallery of Art reminds me of the most important choice I made, to dive head first into a career in the museum field. Today the opportunity to add artists like Preston Singletary to the University Museums’ collection is my chance to select art that I hope will inspire students and visitors and maybe one day remind them of an important life moment. My choices may not be yours, but I hope the art we all choose in life is art that both inspires us and makes us ask questions.
Who Am I? Exhibition Curator
Associate Curator of Collections & Education, University Museums
Resistance & Presence
I grew up in Southern California in the eighties, in a place where pollution was a visible and very real reminder that the environment was suffering. All you had to do was try and find the San Gabriel mountains on any given day. Some days were clear enough to see across the valley, maybe you’d see as far as downtown L.A., but most were not and the mountains remained veiled by smog. In school, we eagerly learned about recycling and saving the environment, how species were dying out because of human activity and resource extraction. “Save the rainforest!” was a phrase I memorized with great gusto.
In 1989, a new environmental disaster flooded the news: the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of southern Alaska. Images of sea birds with their feathers rendered useless by thick layers of oil, of sea otters grooming their soiled coats in vain, of beached whales, of clean-up crews in their bright yellow rubber suits, of scientists talking, of slick, black shores – for weeks, I watched the visual frenzy, too horrified and stunned to look away. Death was everywhere.
Those are the first images that come to my mind when I think of oil.
As an adult and a teacher in American Indian Studies now, looking back through my memory at these images (with a little help from Google) is interesting; there’s something missing. I now know there are communities of people who have inhabited those southern Alaskan shores since time immemorial. But where were they in the news coverage I watched as a child? My memory draws a blank. There’s nothing there. Just dead whales and oil-slicked shoreline. But this is not surprising to me. Not anymore. The space North America’s indigenous people take up in our collective memory is supposed to look like this, a blank space. An absence. A lack of presence. It gives merit to the myth that these lands were mostly uninhabited and therefore open for settlement and development. America’s tabula rasa, awaiting its glorious narrative to be written. By white people, of course.
But looking at Singletary’s sculpture, Oil on Feather, I’m reminded of a different kind of narrative. Resistance.
Despite the media’s neglect, indigenous people are still here. Despite the government’s best efforts at assimilation, land theft, and genocide, indigenous people are still alive and still in relationship with their ancestral homelands. Despite ongoing attempts of cultural erasure, indigenous people are still creating artwork that braids traditional design with modern technologies. Like Singletary. Although glass is not a traditional art medium for the Tlingit, his designs and use of color are unmistakably and unapologetically Tlingit.
Oil on Feather also speaks to me of presence. Red and black are hallmark colors in Tlingit artwork, and Singletary’s sculpture carries the designs pioneered by those who came before him into the present to then be carried by those yet to come. A continuity shared through time and space which speaks of a sovereign presence, influenced but uninterrupted by hundreds of years of colonization.
Particularly interesting is the way Singletary’s work of art requires light to be fully appreciated. The Tlingit designs are immediately noticeable in the carvings, but the iconic red remains hidden until the feather is illuminated from the back. I found myself circling the sculpture, bending down and standing on my toes and tilting my head sideways, trying to find the best angle and light to view it. Eventually, I realized there is no “best” angle, just different angles – each one revealing a different facet or layer of the feather and its story.
My gaze finally came to rest on the oil droplet at the bottom of the feather, a period dotting the last sentence of the story. The droplet is about to fall away, perhaps a statement of resilience: that, despite the 10.8 million gallons of oil spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster, despite the media’s exclusion of the damage done to the Native communities along 1300 miles of southern Alaskan shoreline, despite the devastation of marine animal populations, the people and the land and the animals continue on. They continue on, resisting annihilation like water resists oil.
Associate Teaching Professor, English and American Indian Studies