Clarissa Rizal: Alaska Native Artist Blog

Accentuating Tlingit Traditions

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Chilkat Weaving Apprenticeships vs. Classes and Workshops

January 30th, 2013 by Clarissa

Huddling together, Darlene See, Jeanette Tabor and Jean Lampe weave Chilkat headbands on the portable mahogany looms – 22 years ago in January 1991

How is an apprenticeship different from a workshop or class?  As I understand it, in the old sense of the word, “apprentices” would learn from a “master” artist craftsman by getting acquainted  first through various tasks, i.e.  cleaning up the shop, performing menial tasks for the master, sometimes making the meals, doing the errands, etc., and then when the apprentice became “worthy” (by the master’s definition and time frame), the apprentice would assist the master creating works without pay.  An apprentice could work with the master for several months to several years.

Two of Jennie Thlunaut’s grand-daughters, the late Phoebe Warren (left) and Louise Light (right), with  Darlene See (center) and Clarissa – all three are weaving Chilkat aprons – in March 1992 in Clarissa’s “Juneau studio”

According to my definition of apprentice, in the very beginning, the woman jumps through a lot of hoops if they are going to spend time with me; I am not easy to pin down nor get to – I live in a remote place of Colorado and my Alaska home these days is wherever I can lay my hat (although I still plan on making a home in Haines…(sigh)…someday soon).  I am also not going to waste my precious time with someone who just wants to dabble in Chilkat weaving, so she has to prove herself to me and mainly  I want her to prove herself to herself.  An apprentice is someone who pays (in Jennie’s words) “big money”  to have me to themselves, one-on-one.  The apprentice has such a strong desire to learn the intricate art of Chilkat weaving, that before she even contacts me, most have already bought their loom, drafted up a pattern, purchased Cheryl Samuel’s Chilkat weaving book, and have the wool and cedar to begin spinning their own warp – and if they don’t have any of their materials just before they get a confirmation from me, they get their materials together real quick!

Vanessa Morgan weaves her very first Chilkat project: a pair of leggings in the shape of a copper T’naa (Chilkat face above/Ravenstail pattern below)

It is okay for my apprentices to be “loyal” to me (meaning:  they shall have no other instructor other than me).  However, I do not require this nor do I suggest it, the reason being first, that I am not a “god” and there have been many”gods” before me (LOL), the second being that I believe it is a good thing for students to learn from at least another instructor, and of course, the students will learn from other fellow students.  I encourage my students to share their experiences without fear of “doing the wrong thing.”  There are four techniques in Chilkat weaving:  the 2-strand twine, the 3-strand braid, the interlock and the drawstring.  Everything else that we learn are tricks-of-the-trade, and we can learn these things from watching other weavers, learning from other weavers, and listening to other weavers.  Jennie had more than one teacher.  She learned Chilkat weaving first from her mother, and when her mother passed when Jennie was 12, she learned from her aunties.  Note the plural.  And who knows how many other fellow weavers she learned from in her 84 years as a Chilkat weaver!

Vanessa Morgan and Clarissa Rizal with their Chilkat “T’Naa” Leggings

Also understand that if you are a beginner, intermediate (or master?) Chilkat weaver, be easy on yourself.  As you are a student in learning about life, you will always be a student in learning the vast “seen and unseen” intricacies of Chilkat weaving.  There’s more to Chilkat than meets the eye.  I am weaving my 5th Chilkat robe; this is the first robe where I feel like my fingers are flying through the robe as if I know what I am doing; what(!?)…it’s taken me nearly 25 years to FEEL like I KNOW what I am doing!  Hahahaha!  And although there are some shapes I am not familiar with weaving, I am figuring it out just by logic and reason and having an artistic eye (which really helps!), and I have asked myself why it has taken myself so long to begin to feel “comfortable in my skin with Chilkat”…that answer is unfolding as I write.   So if you think I am a master weaver, you can quit that.  I tell you what, even after 96 years of being one of the most prolific Chilkat weavers in Chilkat history beginning at the age of 12, Jennie did not call herself a “master” weaver – other people called her that to which she replied at the 1985 class she taught in Haines:  “…me a master weaver?  I am not a master weaver…I am still LEARNING!”

Vivian Land – one of Jennie’s four granddaughters who began to learn Chilkat weaving during Clarissa’s first Chilkat weaving class in 1989.

I encourage my students to pay attention to their emotional and spiritual parts of themselves; this is one of the most important aspects of Chilkat weaving that Jennie taught me; these are things that are not easily conveyed in anything written on the history of Chilkat.  According to Jennie Thlunaut “…it’s the spirit of the person that counts,…not just anybody belongs to Chilkat…this is not to have big heads about it…that’s not what this is about…this is about our people, this is about our precious land, this is about our relatives, the animals of the ocean and land and sky,…this is about appreciating this that has been gifted to us, given to you…always give thanks for what you got, for what you have been given…before you go to your loom every day, first thing you pray and give thanks…go to your loom clean – clean mind, clean heart, clean body…”

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