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April 14, 2011

An Insider's Look at Tlingit Artist Preston Singletary

Raven Steals the Sun

The Our Universes gallery at NMAI on the National Mall contains a beautiful example of the
intricate glass sculpture of Tlingit artist Preston Singletary.

By Zandra Wilson (Dine´)

If you've ever been to our museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., you may have noticed some unexpected objects that really stand out—bronze sculptures, boats, mobiles, a bombardier.

Another example is the glass sculpture Raven Steals the Sun at the entrance of the Our Universes gallery on the 4th level. Created by Tlingit artist Preston Singletary, the sculpture represents the tribe’s story about the origins of the celestial bodies, in which the trickster animal captures the sun, moon and stars from a greedy chief and releases them into the world. This account emphasizes the importance of oral history among Native American tribes like the Tlingit.

Because this sculpture plays a significant role in passing down this narrative from generation to generation, as a Cultural Interpreter I felt it was paramount for me to be present at last month's opening of the exhibition Preston Singletary: Echoes, Fire, and Shadows at our sister museum in New York, the George Gustav Heye Center.

March 17, 2011, was such a whirlwind of a day, and not because it was St. Patrick’s Day in Manhattan. The day belonged to Preston Singletary and his 54 glass works. In the Heye Center's Diker Pavilion, a packed audience listened as Singletary shared his personal, professional, and cultural background.

During his talk, Singletary outlined his upbringing and the cultural traditions that inspire his work. I especially appreciated his view on how the past, present, and future are intertwined. If anything, that is what both NMAI museums try to convey. Visitors come to our museums in Washington and New York expecting to see things from the past and are sometimes taken aback by the contemporary themes that each gallery incorporates.

Singletary mentioned how the introduction of glass beads, which were imported from Europe, became adornments, changing traditional attire as we know it. In that same way, artists today use “new” techniques to offer their own interpretations of traditions, histories, and memories of their families and/or culture, thus paving the way for the future generations of artists and storytellers.

Preston Singletary. Wolf Hat, 1989. Blown and sandcarved glass. Collection of James Sherman.

Singletary sees his work as incorporating several dimensions—not only the shape and size of a single piece, but also how the effects of light and shadow change depending on the observer's point of view. Singletary also pays homage to his teachers and mentors: his Tlingit great-grandparents as well as fellow master glass artisans. Working with artists from across the world—the Tlingit on the Pacific Norwest Coast, the Maori of the South Pacific, and glass blowers from Sweden—Singletary manages to intertwine time as well as place.

After his talk, guests were invited to take a sneak peek into the gallery space. With each piece of art, Singletary demonstrates how significant his influences are by incorporating an array of techniques such as glassblowing, sand carving, and inlaying.

Prior to his presentation, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Mr. Singletary in the exhibition and to ask him a few questions: 


The exhibition Preston Singletary: Echoes, Fire, and Shadows is on view in the West Gallery of the Heye Center through September 5, 2011.

Zandra Wilson works in the Education Office of the museum as a Cultural Interpreter.


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I think glass ornaments can be some of the most beautiful pieces of art. With special lighting and display, you can bring out all of their intracacies. The article mentioned glass beads being used, but I couldn't tell if they were a new development with the Tlingit people, or had they been using glass beads in Mr Singletary's great-grandparent's time. Interesting article.


Wow... the pic of the "Wolf hat" is absolutely gorgeous. I have never seen glass ornaments displayed so beautifully! It's amazing how much of a difference the lighting makes. A true beauty. Thanks for sharing.

That’s pretty exciting blog and I really hope more people get to read this.

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