Photo essay: Bronze posts and a peek behind the curtain
The anatomy of making, installing and celebrating SHI's new house posts
Sealaska Heritage Institute unveiled three bronze house posts on the corner of Front and Seward Streets by the Walter Soboleff Building in Juneau on Aug. 26 during a public ceremony and celebration. The posts were made by three emerging master Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian artists—Stephen Paul Jackson, TJ Young and David Robert Boxley.
The bronzes are juxtaposed against the three monumental Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian pieces at the building made by master artists Preston Singletary, Robert Davidson and David A. Boxley. The cedar posts upon which the bronzes were based are currently on view at SHI and will be erected on the waterfront side of the Sealaska building.
Creation of the posts
Using wood donated by Sealaska, the three artists carved their posts in red cedar over several months in their home communities, and then shipped them to Classic Foundry in Seattle to be cast in bronze. The casting process was overseen by Tlingit artist Preston Singletary.
The first step in the process was creating a mold of the original posts in silicon rubber.
Next, a wax replica of the wood post was created by pouring hot, liquid wax into the mold. Once cool, the mold was taken apart and the wax replica (called a wax positive) was removed.
The wax positive was covered with a slurry mixture and varying grits of sand applied in successive coats to create a new ceramic shell, and then heated in a kiln until the wax melted and ran out, leaving the shell empty. The ceramic shell was then filled with molten bronze. Finally, the ceramic shell was removed, revealing the cast bronze.
Due to the large size of each post, they could not be cast in one piece, but had to be broken up into several smaller bronze pieces and then welded together.
Welders also smoothed seams and any imperfections on the finished sculptures and then mounted them onto round bases.
After final polishing, corrosive materials were applied to form a patina, a process that allows control over the color and finish. In collaboration with the artists, the project crew chose from a wide variety of colors, landing on somewhat different patinas for each post, giving each post a distinct look.
Installation of the posts
The completed posts arrived at the Walter Soboleff Building on August 23, three days prior to the unveiling ceremony.
Two foundry staff members, Jacob Pocock and Max Brake, came up from Seattle to install them on the corner of Front and Seward Streets in downtown Juneau.
Pocock and Brake drilled anchors into the concrete sidewalk, onto which they fastened a “receiver” for each post. The 1000-pound posts were then “threaded” onto the receivers using a Genie lift.
The posts were wrapped in plastic and canvas and kept hidden during the entire installation process.
The posts were unveiled during an outdoor ceremony in front of hundreds of community members, tribal leaders, and honored guests.
The three artists revealed their bronzes at the same moment to the beat of a drum and the cheers of the crowd.
Speakers who addressed the crowd during the unveiling described their excitement in witnessing a new generation of artists step forward.
“These three young men are our future,” said guest speaker Lt. Governor of Alaska Byron Mallott. “This is but a beginning and the end is nowhere in sight.”
SHI President Rosita Worl said the posts are a powerful counterpart to the three monumental works in the Walter Soboleff Building, and an expression of the core value Haa Shuká, Honoring our Ancestors and Future Generations (Íitl’ Kuníisii in Haida language, Na Łagigyetgm in Tsimshian).
“These posts are symbols of our past and proud symbols of our future,” Worl said. “They record our culture and history and they record the values of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people. They also speak to our vision to make Juneau the Northwest Coast art capital to serve our region and our state.”
Worl also called for the designation of the street corner and street fronting the Walter Soboleff Building as Heritage Square and Heritage Street.
Speakers in addition to Worl and Mallott included SHI Board Chair Marlene Johnson, Sealaska Board Chair Joe Nelson, Sealaska President and CEO Anthony Mallott, Juneau Delegation Representative Connie McKenzie (who read prepared remarks from U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski), Juneau Mayor Ken Koelsch, Rasmuson Foundation Board Member Rebecca Brice Henderson, and Central Council of Tlingit & Haida President Richard Peterson.
Dance group Woosh.Ji.Een opened the event and Yées Ku.Oo closed it out with the Tsimshian Happy Song, composed by dance group leader Nancy Barnes and Kimberly Clark, inviting the artists to join in.
Details about the posts
Tlingit artist Stephen P. Jackson of the Dakl’aweidí clan, Kéet Gooshí Hít, said his post represents a Raven transformation story.
“This pole is rooted, for me, in our search for origins,” Jackson said. “The post depicts the woman who gave birth to the Raven, who went on to steal the sun, moon, and stars. It examines part of the complexity of the way in which Tlingit culture places value on feminine strength. And I hope this piece will allow for a spirit of openness as we try to understand our place here.”
Jackson’s helpers on his pole included artists Robert Mills and Christian Dalton, and his parents, Nathan and Dorica Jackson.
Asked by an interviewer if he believed the posts are representative of cultural emergence or of cultural reclamation, Jackson said he believes it’s always both.
“There’s a reclamation in terms of trying to find out the essential characteristics of Northwest Coast or Tlingit art, that’s always an uncertain process,” Jackson said. “The emergence occurs at that very same moment -- when people are trying to reclaim, they are also inventing at the same time.”
Tsimshian carver David R. Boxley, Gyibaawm Laxha, of the Laxgibuu clan, also chose Raven, or Txeemsm, as a central figure in his post.
“I carved this post the same way the old Tsimshian carvers would have -- our carvers often made human figures on our totem poles and house posts. The bottom of the pole is Txeemsm, that’s our word for Raven ... On top of Txeemsm are four human figures that represent the four clans of the Tsimshian: Gisbutwada, Ganhada, Laxsgiik, and Laxgibuu.
“Our people have many stories about how things in the world came to be, in many of those stories it was Txeemsm who caused those things to happen. Our people, all our people, enjoy the world the way Txeemsm made it.”
Boxley, who presented his remarks entirely in Sm’algyax (Tsimshian language) before translating them into English, said for him the posts are a sign of cultural perpetuation.
“Northwest Coast art is the visual representation of who we are,” he said. “I think these posts show a strength and resilience… It’s an opportunity to show that our cultures are alive and vibrant.”
Haida artist TJ Young, Sgwaayaans, of the Yáadaas clan, drew on the traditional story of the lazy son-in-law for the imagery in his post. The central figure is Wasgo or Seawolf, a supernatural figure in the Haida culture that shares traits of both Wolf and Killerwhale,
“The Tlingit and the Tsimshian have a version of (this story) too,” Young said. “It’s just one of those stories, when you’re a kid, that makes you excited. You enjoy the thought of Seawolf being able to swim around and actually hunt and kill and eat whales.”
“Our old timers talk about some of those old totem poles being so realistic that as you walk by the old ones, they look like they want to wink at you,” he continued. “That’s what I’m shooting for in the next 20 years or 30 years.”
Young worked on the pole in collaboration with his brother, Joe, and with friends who stopped by their carving shed in Hydaburg.
“We had a lot of help on this,” Young said. “One of our apprentices, Tim Peele … unfortunately he died last summer. So part of him will live on through this totem pole too, he got his hands on it a bunch of times. I’m really grateful for that.”
Young said he was also grateful to have his pole next to that of Jackson and Boxley and to be given an opportunity to carry on the traditions of his people.
“I think it’s a privilege to do what I do, to carve for a living, to interpret our history, and interpret our relationship to our environment,” he said. “I feel lucky to be able to do this.”
All three artists said the posts are their first works in bronze.
Painting of the wood posts
The day after the unveiling, Young and Boxley painted the cedar versions of their posts in front of the Soboleff Building, fielding questions from curious tourists as they worked. Jackson’s post had already been painted prior to being shipped to SHI. The painted wood posts will be installed at a later date near the Sealaska building.
Written by Kari Groven and Amy Fletcher. Photos by Brian Wallace, Nobu Koch, Classic Foundry in Seattle and Stephen Jackson.