Article by Cornelia Feye
May 7, 2023
Mingei Museum’s Commitment to Indigenous Art
Preston Singletary, Tlingit glass artist and bearer of tradition, originally wanted to become a rock star. He still plays guitar in the band Khu.éex’, which translates into Potlach, a traditional ritual practiced by the Northwest Coast indigenous tribes. When the big break as a musician didn’t materialize, he became a rock star of glass art instead, combining European glass blowing traditions with Northwest Native art. A fortunate decision for his international audience, who get to experience his exquisite and evocative work at museums and galleries worldwide.
In the second Joyce Axelrod lecture at the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park, Singletary gave an overview of his creative journey and how he arrived at his most recent immersive installation of Raven & the Box of Daylight at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC, currently touring the nation. Like any creative process, it did not follow a straight line, but was a circular journey following along the lines of Raven’s myth, which was woven throughout the lecture. Along the way, Singletary, like raven, had to overcome obstacles and received gifts and blessings in disguise. The eruption of Mt. St Helen in 1980 being one of them. The ash from the volcano was used in glass blowing a Seattle glass studio, where Singletary worked at a night watchman.
This set Singletary on his path as an artist incorporating traditional Tlingit designs in glass objects. Without an academic art education, but with the help of many mentors in the glass blowing community, Singletary arrived at Pilchuck Glass Studio north of Seattle, where a group of artists created a totem pole in honor of the school’s founders John Hauberg, Anne Gould Hauberg, and Dale Chihuly. Singletary contributed a glass dagger and the traditional flared hat of the Tlingit elders made out of glass. It was a turning point in Singletary’s creative journey. The hat combines traditional Tlingit design in the nontraditional medium of glass. The shadows cast onto the surface reflect the designs more clearly than on the object itself.
After many transformations and obstacles, Raven is able to open the box with daylight and brings light to the world, just as Singletary has been able to bring his exquisite, light-reflecting artworks into being. They are the result of various contemporary and traditional influences and inspirations. “So much of our indigenous culture was lost or stolen, but they couldn’t destroy the stories. They were passed on orally and continue in a new form in this art.” Singletary says.
“This lecture reflects the Mingei’s commitment to indigenous art.” says Mingei’s Executive Director Jessica Hanson York. It is also a preview to a 2026 Mingei exhibition entitled Clearly Indigenous, which will feature Preston Singletary’s work together and with twenty-five other indigenous glass artists. It also fulfills a vision of Joyce Axelrod, art patron, long-time Mingei supporter, videographer, collector of Pueblo pottery and Kachina dolls, and namesake of the lecture series, “that the guest speakers’ influence will go way beyond the few days they spend at the Mingei and will reverberate into the future.”
Preston Singletary, presentation: Eagles Journey with Raven, May 5, 2023
Mingei Museum, Balboa Park; Second Annual Joyce Axelrod Lecture