Northwest Coast Art: Connecting inmates, others to Southeast Alaska Native cultures

Northwest Coast Art: Connecting inmates, others to Southeast Alaska Native cultures

Posted By:
Kathy Dye
Kathy Dye
Published On: August 9th, 2018

Lemon Creek Correctional Center inmate and Tlingit and Tsimshian artist David Guthrie was clueless about his culture and unsure about his future before he got caught up in a world of copper, creativity and camaraderie.

“I feel that your class and the carving classes have saved my life, giving me purpose and helping me want to learn my culture,” Guthrie wrote in a letter to David R. Boxley, who taught a very popular formline art class at LCCC.

“This is my calling.”

David Guthrie working on a plaque at Lemon Creek Correctional Facility through SHI’s Haa Latseen Community Project: Strength and Resilience Through the Arts program. Guthrie’s newfound passion is one of the real, rehabilitative results of SHI’s Haa Latseen Community Project: Strength and Resilience Through the Arts program.

For the last two years, with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, SHI has supplied interested inmates with dedicated master Alaska Native artist teachers such as Boxley, Ray Watkins and Donald Gregory, and cedar, abalone, copper, paint and other materials needed to channel their energy into culturally relevant and economically and personally empowering artistic expression.

“The best thing about all this is that I can pass it on” to my four kids, Guthrie said. “This has given me something I should be able to teach them. Something positive.”

Now that the NEA grant period is over, another grant or funding source is needed for the classes to continue.

“I was kind of bummed out when Donald said we aren’t going to have classes for a while,” Guthrie said.

There were also free Haa Latseen classes for community members at the Gajaa Hit building in downtown Juneau, where former inmates were invited to continue their art education in the community classes after they were released.

While still in prison, the students had the opportunity to earn money to pay restitution and build up savings for their release by selling their work through the LCCC lobby store, the Sealaska Heritage Store and the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council Lobby Shop. They also donated some artwork to charity and sent pieces to their families

They gained the skills to perpetuate Northwest Coast art by learning to create a wide variety of Northwest Coast art forms including deer calls, rattles, paddles, traditional wooden halibut hooks, copper tináas, plaques, headdress frontlets and masks. They also learned the fundamentals of formline design.

“The formline class blew all of our minds,” Guthrie said. “It kind of sparked a little bit of a flare.”

For Guthrie, that flare erupted into a symbol of Alaska Native empowerment.

David R. Boxley teaching a formline class at the prison through SHI’s Haa Latseen Community Project: Strength and Resilience Through the Arts program.

Inspired by Boxley’s formline class and a new concern for and interest in his culture, Guthrie sketched an open hand with formline fingers and a Chilkat face on the palm. The sketch is accompanied by a simple, powerful message:  STOP! It’s our turn to talk. Guthrie said he’d like to get the words translated into the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian languages.

Guthrie included the sketch in his letter to Boxley and described its potential impact.

“Not only would it be speaking out to Alaskan Native tribal oppression, but our languages dying off, domestic violence, and our rights as local indigenous people of this land,” he wrote.

Guthrie is contemplating how he’ll go about getting the symbol seen and heard.

“I’m just starting to figure it out,” he said.  “Maybe I’ll put it on t-shirts and everybody will wear it.” SHI also offered small business trainings that complemented the art classes. Taught by Saunders McNeill of the Alaska State Council for the Arts, the classes showed students how to create the marketing tools and find the resources they need to make a living or supplement their income with their art once they’re released.

Business class in the prison taught  by Saunders McNeill of the Alaska State Council for the Arts through SHI’s Haa Latseen Community Project: Strength and Resilience Through the Arts program.

Participating in the art classes is a privilege. According to LCCC Education Coordinator Paul McCarthy, inmates must be write-up free for a certain period of time, have a job within the prison, and be housed in cells or “mods,”  where the best-behaved inmates reside, to qualify for the popular classes and use the hobby shop.

“It’s a highly desired thing to be able to use the hobby shop. They can focus on making their art and the rest of the place disappears for a while,” McCarthy said. “It sounds like Santa’s elves’ workshop in there.”

Such a positive environment can be hard to imagine for art teachers with no experience working inside of a prison.

“I have to admit I was kind of reluctant, especially after we had to go through security and safety training. They tell you, ‘don’t get personal’” with the inmates, Ray Watkins said.  “I wasn’t sure what it would be like. I thought maybe I need to make it impersonal, but you lose things that way. It wasn’t a problem at all and they were just so happy to be there and happy we were there sharing this with them. They just love it.”

Some of the inmates are so into creating art that they escape to the hobby shop to work on projects whenever they have free time.

“I usually go in the mornings when no one’s there,” Guthrie said. “I feel like its rehabilitating to sit there and start carving. If I’m having a bad day and just start sanding something, even if I screw up and have to start over again, it’s relieving.”


A prisoner doesn’t have to be an Alaska Native to participate in the classes. For non-Native students, the classes contribute to cross-cultural understanding and appreciation of Alaska Native art and culture.

LCCC inmate Joe Cox is of Scotch-Irish descent but is naturally drawn to NWC art and culture. Stories are what stir his artistic soul.

“I enjoy learning about the cultures in this area. I love hearing the stories,” he said. “I did a plaque for a story.  It’s a Haida legend and I read it out of one of the books that we have” in the prison library.

Joe Cox working on a Frog design he made through SHI’s Haa Latseen Community Project: Strength and Resilience Through the Arts program.

The legend Cox painted in formline on a U-shaped cedar plaque explains why Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands) lacked frog inhabitants for a long time.  In the story, the leader of the Frog People meets a large black bear for the first time. Having never encountered such an animal, the frog leader is horrified. The bear takes advantage of the leader’s fear by starting to play a dangerous game and trying to stomp on the frog leader. The fast frog escapes, tells his people about his frightening experience, and they all decide to flee the islands.

“I made a piece where there was a bear chasing frogs,” he said. “I’m not very original. I’ve got to have a story to figure out what to make. “

Cox takes the most pride in the art pieces that help him connect with the community and strengthen bonds with friends and family.

“The two pieces I am most proud of aren’t my best pieces. One is my very first mask because I sent it to my mom and she loved it.  It was a raven with human ears…I really impressed my family,” Cox recalled. “And then there was a wolf mask I gave to my friend whose dog had died as a tribute to the dog. He had a malamute named Kodiak and he looked kind of like a wolf.”

The classes have been a priceless source of self-esteem for Cox, as well as a way to ensure self-sufficiency once he’s released.

“It gives you strength, a sense of belonging and a sense of attachment to your community. It gave me something to do to better myself and helps generate some income too, and I’ve used that to reinvest in tools,” he said. “The first $800 I made went straight into tools.  I’ve got my own knives now as well as a bunch of other miscellaneous arts supplies.”

Equipped with his own tools, Cox will be ahead of the game in his post-prison artistic endeavors.

“I look forward to classes on the outside,” if they continue, Cox said.  “I’ll be released into Juneau, so I’m really looking forward to pursuing that training”

The classes were also a vehicle for inmates to bond, learn from each other, and grow to appreciate each other’s talents. Cox is awed by the dramatic difference the classes have made in his cellmate Aaron Phillips’ life.

“It was pretty inspirational watching Aaron. As his artistic endeavors progressed so too did his interest in his culture,” Cox said. “It’s pretty intense how much he’s gotten into that.”

‘It puts a piece of you out there’

No one is more surprised about the transformation in attitude and perspective than Phillips himself.

“For me, at the beginning, (taking the art classes) was just to get out of the mod, but it’s transformed into something I want to learn,” said Phillips, who is Aleut.  “You get good teachers like Ray Watkins and Donald Gregory and it makes a big difference. I wish they’d come in every week… I like listening to the history of what we’re making, like the halibut hooks. I just thought they were art. I didn’t know they were functioning pieces. I didn’t know any of it.”

Aaron Phillips holding an Eagle mask he made through SHI’s Haa Latseen Community Project: Strength and Resilience Through the Arts program.

Phillips has taken every available art workshop at LCCC. He’s sold paddles, halibut hooks, clocks, masks and more, and donated several pieces to charity, including an Aleut-style whistling mask he gave to the Special Olympics for a raffle.

“I have an opportunity now to give back. It puts a piece of you out there for whoever gets the piece,” Phillips said. “I never really thought about giving back. I was always taking, taking and taking from everybody, society, my family…It was these classes that made me think about my culture. I should be teaching my kids about who I am. It totally turned (around) my perception of society in general.”

Like Cox, Phillips gets the most satisfaction from pieces he shares with friends and family. He said his favorite piece is a bear maskette he made for his 10-year-old son.

“He loved it,” Phillips said.

Phillips is forward-thinking when it comes to his career as an artist and is in the process of developing an artist statement, portfolio and business plan.

“I’d like to possibly get an apprenticeship with a master carver and learn more about the Aleut culture,” he said.

Mask made by Aaron Phillips for sale at the Sealaska Heritage Store in Juneau.

Phillips is also showing potential as an art teacher. According to Haa Latseen instructor Donald Gregory, many of the students look to Phillips for suggestions and assistance, and he embodies one of the lessons Gregory emphasizes.

“I always remind them, if you guys want to learn this, you have to agree that you will teach somebody else, and you’ll feel better about it because you will have taught somebody else,” Gregory said.  “I also want them to pass it on so it never gets forgotten. That’s why I’m teaching it, so they just keep passing it down.”

Strategic creativity

Released from LCCC into Juneau in March 2018, artist Rick Gottardi successfully transitioned from the LCCC art classes into the free community art classes at the Gajaa Hit.

Gottardi, who has been drawing and painting for most of his life, got the scoop about the Haa Latseen community classes from Gregory.

“I talked to Donald. He was telling me about a class going on down by the ANB Hall,” Gottardi said. “We’d go down there every Saturday and carve from 1-6. It was great. I looked forward to going. Ray is really a great teacher, and so is Donald.”

Rick Gottardi holding two headdresses he made through SHI’s Haa Latseen Community Project: Strength and Resilience Through the Arts program.

With a demanding new job, Gottardi doesn’t have as much free time as he would like to work on his art. But he’s not going to let the challenges of life on the outside extinguish his artistic ambitions.

He’s got a strategy.  Following Watkins’s advice, Gottardi is laying the foundation for finishing a bundle of pieces at the same time by slowly chipping away at several works simultaneously.

“This frontlet I’m doing right now is awesome,” Gottardi said. “I’ve got some cedar right now and I’m getting ready to do some plaques, and I’ll probably get some copper and beads to make some decent necklaces and have them ready for next year” to sell at Celebration 2020.

He said he’s also got plenty of handmade halibut hooks, rattles, tináas and paddles just hanging around his apartment, waiting to be sold.

In LCCC, Gottardi was entirely focused on the creative side of art and didn’t dwell on selling his pieces. Now, the desire to build a client base and business has kicked in.

“I sold some stuff to my attorney. She bought an eagle mask and a raven mask. She was having a hard time picking the one she wanted,” he said. “I’m hoping I can get a job where I can do art all the time. I’d like to get a grant and do that.”

Art in action  

The Haa Latseen classes were also an avenue for community members who are not inmates or former inmates to develop their skills and contribute to the community.

Tlingit artist Douglas Gray used the classes to enrich an Alaska Native dance group by making eagle headdresses and frontlets for it.

“For Sheet’ka Kwáan they have some young boys who are really doing well in their dancing and they wanted headdresses for them so they asked me to make a couple,” he said.

Doug Gray at Gajaa Hít holding two headdresses he made through SHI’s Haa Latseen Community Project: Strength and Resilience Through the Arts program.

Gray has been making regalia and other forms of Northwest Coast art on and off for nearly two decades. The Haa Latseen community classes took the sporadic nature out of his artistic efforts.

“The biggest help to me is having that opportunity to consistently carve,” Gray said.  “When I’m just carving for a short time I don’t get the chance to build the skills I want to build. This has provided me that opportunity. When you start to carve consistently then you have an opportunity to build confidence in what you’re doing.”

Gray said he also appreciated the camaraderie in the classes and all the insights and suggestions he gets from his teachers and fellow students.

The effort and care Gray put into his Haa Latseen projects paid off in a beautiful and meaningful fashion when he watched his headdresses fulfill their purpose by being danced at Celebration


“It felt great to see them in use and knowing these boys will be dancing with them for a very long time,” Gray said. “It’s such a positive experience to perpetuate the culture. It feels amazing. Those headdresses are going to be out there much longer than I am.”

Sealaska Heritage Institute founded the Haa Latseen program after studies showed Native students do better academically when language and culture are integrated into schools. The inclusion of Native cultures promotes positive identity and academic achievement.

“I thought we could apply the same lesson to Native inmates by integrating culture and arts to restore pride and also to provide a source of income,” said SHI President Rosita Worl, noting the troubling disparity between the percentage of Alaska Natives in the state versus the percentage of Alaska Natives in prison.

Alaska Natives are 16 percent of Alaska’s population but constitute 36 percent of the prison population of whom 98 percent are Native males.

Special thanks to Tlingit and Haida Regional Housing Authority for allowing Sealaksa Heritage to use Gajaa Hít for art programs. Also thanks to our main coordinator at the housing authority, Norton Gregory, pictured (right) with SHI art teacher Donald Gregory.

Worl also noted the importance of SHI’s partners, including the Tlingit and Haida Housing Authority, which owns the Gajaa Hít building in Juneau and allows the institute to offer art programming there.

Since SHI partnered with the housing authority seven years ago, the institute has offered numerous art programs at Gajaa Hít, including classes on carving, formline design and sewing. SHI also developed a mentor-apprentice project there, which resulted in the creation of two totem poles and training for three students.

SHI and the housing authority promoted these art programs to the authority’s clients and to the community at large.

“Our partnerships, such as the one with the housing authority, have been critical and beneficial to SHI’s strategy to maximize our efficiencies and resources of partnering organizations,” Worl said.

Written by Tamara Ikenberg. Photos at Lemon Creek Correctional Center courtesy of LCCC staff. Photo of children wearing Doug Gray’s headdresses courtesy of Doug Gray. Photos of Doug Gray and mask at the Sealaska Heritage Store by Nobu Koch.  

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