James Johnson is an Award Winning Tlingit Artist and Carver, born and raised in Juneau, AK. He also happens to be a lifelong snowboarder and belongs to the Tlingit Ch’áak’ Dakl’aweidi [Eagle Killer Whale] Clan. We were lucky enough to collaborate with James and showcase this art on a premium woven tapestry blanket and a 100% recycled quick-dry travel towel.
To celebrate Native American heritage month, Slowtide is proud to be donating a portion of the proceeds to support the incredible work of Sealaska and the Yakutat Surf Club. Learn more about the collaboration with this interview with James below.
How were you first introduced to art?
I am Tlingit Indian from southeast Alaska, I belong to the Dakl'aweidi Clan (Killerwhale Clan). There is no word for "art" in our language, it is completely part of our culture and way of life. The "art form" goes back thousands of years with our people. The history of our people was an oral history that was passed down from generation to generation, and the art form was an integral part in telling the history of our people of who we are and where we came from. To learn this art form takes years and years of studying the fundamentals and rules for it. I've been doing this for 14 years, wether I chose to do this, or it chose me, this is exactly what I'm meant to be doing with my life. It's my purpose.
Can you tell us a bit about the story and design behind the two prints?
Bentwood Boxes ("Lakt") were some of the most incredible and functional items our people created and used. High ranking Clan Chiefs typically owned the boxes that were both painted and recess carved, they were a symbol of wealth. We used them for storing our sacred ceremonial clan objects called our at'oow. We used them for storing food, and women used the unpainted ones for cooking. They were water tight, so they'd fill the box with water, place hot stones from the fire inside, and it'd make the water boil to cook in. Incredible pieces of our culture. The design is a specific style that you would just see on bentwood boxes. The Design featured on the blanket follows this art form, and honors our culture. The Tlingit word for hummingbird is "Digitgiyáa" - it represents the miracle of life, and also how fragile life is. Stories of the Hummingbird say it shares secrets with all the flowers, and goes and whispers it to them. Beautiful.
What Inspires you?
I'm inspired by the traditional work of my ancestors, they really set the standard for what we're all striving for today. I love looking at old pieces, you can learn so much from one piece, the composition, balance of positive and negative space, flowing curves of a sculpture piece, so much to learn off of. I love creating these traditional pieces, a piece that can exist within our culture 500 years ago seamlessly. That gets me inspired.
Why do you think art is important and do you have any advice for someone trying to pursue art as a career?
What I do is so much more than trying to create something that is beautiful, we're carrying forward a tradition, and our culture. A culture that everything that could have been done, was done to destroy it during colonization of our people. We are left with these broken pieces, we are working to put it back together the best way we know how. As a Tlingit artist, I carry this responsibility on my back, I welcome it. It's a gift that my ancestors placed in my hands, they said, "here, it's your turn to carry this thru your lifetime." I'm making the absolute most of it. To make it, takes patience, hard work, and dedication. This art form is hard, it's supposed to be. You can't do this as a hobby, or "dabble" in it, it takes everything you have, complete commitment to it if you want to be good. You have to learn the fundamentals of formline, master it by drawing everyday. Like your life depends on it, you have to draw. The better you are at formline, the better carver you'll be. It teaches you to see the balance in the art form.
What is the connection to Sealaska and Yakutat Surf Club and why is it important to support these organizations?
It's important for me to give back to my people, my tribe in Alaska. It's important to support Native Youth, encourage and support them. I'm fortunate to be in a position to help. Sealaska has a lot of programs that directly help support native youth, one of them is the Yakutat Surf club. It's amazing to connect Slowtide and Sealaska. The CEO of Sealaska, Anthony Mallott is Tlingit from Yakutat, and grew up surfing there. He has passion for surfing, and helping his people. I'm really happy to donate a portion from this collection with Slowtide to help support their surf club. It shows these Tlingit youth we care, and encourage them to pursue their passions and dreams.