A look at the indigenous art in Alaska

Interview artist Lily Hope

Lily Hope

Who has been the most influential person in your journey as an artist?
That one is kind of easy. My mother Clarissa Rizal. R-I-Z-A-L. (She) was an artist my entire life. I just talked to my sister about this yesterday, but we can’t remember her ever doing things that we wanted to do with her. Like if we were like” hey play Yahtzee with us!” She was like, “oh come over here and you know stir this dye pot or put these buttons down in this button row. She invited us to do all the things that she did, but I don’t remember ever being able to instigate something like that. But the interesting thing about that is that she was varied in her interests like she wanted to be a gardener and she wanted to plant things and have a garden and she wanted to make button robes and dye yarns and do Tai Chi. So, I did a ton of stuff with my mother that was all her interests and really kept me going. As you know we were never bored- never, ever- bored hanging out with her. We learned to do all sorts of things that others kids didn’t necessarily do. Like other people who had parents who worked an office job, we were, you know, sewing. I was sewing at four and sewing done buttons at 5 and so really like making art constantly. Probably my most influential (person). My brother just commented on it. He’s a filmmaker in Santa Fe, NM, but she was a storyteller, not just in her interactions, but in the work that she made. So, like she would document dreams that she had or other people’s family lineages in her regalia. So, she’s been the number one influence in my work.

How are you? Did you have a good day?
I’m on a crazy art deadline, it’s not realistic, but we’ll see. I’ll get as far as I can this week. Yeah, for the next 10 days going to weave as much as I can on this weaving right here.

How does your work comment on current societal or political issues?
Well, the core of my work doesn’t really. I am making traditional Chilkat blankets but the fun, contemporary stuff I have been pulling out, especially since coronavirus, I have been making these Chilkat Protector masks which are in the photograph you guys found. That has been, that has actually tripled the number of museums that have my work and has gotten me some pretty big exposure- international exposure. There is also the Black Lives Matter armband that I posted a few days ago on Instagram and is part of the All-Alaska Biennial Show and I did put the little narrative in there so if you go to my Instagram you can look at that. The Black Lives Matter Allies armband is speaking to the need for allies for the BIPOC community and people of color. To be visible-more easily visible- and that’s why I designed the armband, so that when a person is an ally of the BIPOC community they can wear this bright yellow armband anytime they leave the house. It becomes this easy visual for any person who finds themself in a vulnerable situation. They can just scan the crowd and know that this person wearing this bright yellow band will be there to record, or stand up and speak, or advocate on behalf of the person of color. So those two pieces I think are the most current, up issues. The most current pieces that I have that relate to societal and political stuff. We as a class of course put together a whole list of things we could make art around. I also have a series of masks I am making for the city and borough of Juneau speaking to the transgender and LGBTQ population. How we used to, indigenous people, used to value them, LBTQ, differently in a more elevated way. So that set of masks is coming out at the end of December.
So that’s good.

Do you see your work trending in this direction as we move forward? Like wanting to create more work that has to do with current societal issues?
Yeah, I don’t think that I’m going to slow down on that. I think that advocacy, speaking up and using art as a platform for speaking up about things like missing and murdered indigenous women, sexual and domestic violence, the disparity of income between men and women, women and motherhood or like artmaking and motherhood. I think that’s a huge thing.
And then being taken seriously as a female artist and being able to brag if you will, the way that a male artist might. I just posted a story on Instagram about that too. An international museum acquired one of my masks and I was really excited. And then somebody was like.
“Good for you for posting about that, because if you were a male artist you would have shared that information. So good for you for standing up.” And I was like, that’s not like me being a whiny female and we had a long conversation about that and I was like wow, we would never say a man was being whiny or like braggery if he was like. “Hey, such and such museum acquired my work.” So that’s really fun… that’s a whole other can of worms.
I will not slow down on the social and political platforms.

Yes, I think that’s very good. I’m here for it.
I think it’s important.
When did you realize you wanted to make a career out of being an artist?
I guess it kind of happened by accident or my own mother. My mother forced me into it, but kind of by accident. I was already teaching a little bit of weaving with her. I kind of follow her around and would co-teach whatever classes she was doing. I was helping her weave Chilkat blankets.
I was a paid performing artist as an actor with Perseverance, Perseverance Theater. I was also making a pretty good side hustle just being a traditional storyteller all while being in college. Then right after graduating college we had our first kid so I took a few years off from working and making money as an artist or anything else for that matter. I don’t think that I worked much When I got back into it, I started leaving a blanket. A Chilkat blanket and I guess I was weaving the whole time, just not the volume that I’m leaving now like square inches per year. I guess you could say, and I guess it was like two or three years, so 2012? 2010? Where I kind of realized like, this could be a thing that supports my life. I guess that’s about it, and it’s really only been like five or six years where I feel like I cannot do anything else except teach and make art and teach and make art.
So maybe six years of doing that? But I don’t know that there was like a single moment where I was like, “I think when I grow up I’m going to be an artist.” I’ve just been kind of doing it the whole time.
People ask me to do stuff and I say sure.

Yeah, just a given. How you described how your mother raised you, it definitely seems like it was a very natural choice. Not even like “Hey, I’m going to be an artist”, it was just your lifestyle.
Right, yeah, and weirdly my sister is a full-time artist and my brother is a full-time artist. My mom did some serious magic. It was like no jobs, we were just going to do this side hustle, this really crazy, risky side hustle thing that’s going to be our primary hustle.
My sister was a graphic designer. A web developer for 16 years and now she’s a weaver. So yeah, it’s pretty amazing. Well, she still does graphic design, just not for anybody except me and my aunts.

Would you consider yourself a traditional artist?
You know, if you asked me pre–coronavirus I would have told you that I am a traditionalist and I follow the rules and I follow the guidelines of Chilkat weaving in the way that it was taught to me, which is still true, that I still use the foundational techniques and spiritual teachings of Chilkat weaving. But I am definitely a contemporary artist. One because I’m alive and I’m working in art so that in itself is contemporary. But also, the whole applying the Chilkat weaving technique and visuals to the Chilkat Protector mask, and then the BLM Allies armband are both contemporary in the biggest sense. So, I can’t not be a contemporary artist now. I mean, yes, I make traditional ceremonial regalia but I also made a series of a dozen or more collages, the series is called ” Documents” and is speaking to the documents that Chilkat blankets are. They serve as a document of history. You can go back in time and I took literal documents of history like the purchase of Alaska or ANB and ANS imagery and the Bill of Rights kind of stuff and merged them into Chilkat motifs. They are some pretty contemporary collages.
I also applied for a contemporary arts fellowship recently, so we’ll see how that goes.
So yes, traditional artist, but bridging the contemporary world. Like using traditional techniques to create contemporary work. I’m having contemporary “up” conversations, right?

One of the first assignments in this class was defining “traditional” in the context of Alaskan Native art and how tradition is something that is not just of the past but something that exists and continues to evolve.
I do appreciate thinking about myself as a textile artist as well. That’s been a relatively recent exploration, this past year and a half, two years of being aware that I’m not just a Northwest Coast Weaver of Ravenstail Chilkat. Which is like a few 100 people who do these Ravenstail Chilkat, but there are thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of people who are textile artists. And my world really blew up and I applied to be one of the Fiber Artists for Excellence in fibers. It is this annual big show of textile artists and I got into it. And I was like so, I guess I’m a real fiber artist now.
Thank you, that’s great. You know, national recognition. That’s great.

That’s really cool. You can like identify all of these different ways as it benefits you as an artist.
Right, right.

So please tell us about why you created the #WHYAKMASKUP campaign.
Can you tell us more about the mask themselves?
Well, the masks themselves are based on the bottom half of a Chilkat face, which is kind of the anamorphic being on initial cap blanket. The masks came about because in late March, First American Art magazine put out a call that they were looking for Indigenous artists to make fine art, protective wear. Some of them were hand sewn out of cotton fabric and a lot of them were beaded and dentalium shell adorned in traditional indigenous ways across the Americas. All the First Nations peoples; Hopi, Navajo, Aztec, all the all the big tribes.
I wove the mask with the intent of submitting it to this particular show, and got accepted, and it was part of the show. The running of the show in April and the day that it was released with the first American Art magazine, The Burke Museum said, “We are buying that. Don’t let anyone else buy it.” and I was like, “Thank you!” Because that started the whole thing of like oh, this is legit art right here? Like this is pretty cutting edge as far as using traditional materials to speak to stuff. I was approached two or three months ago to be part of a bike interior poster campaign that one of the Tribal housing authorities was trying to put together and he wanted to know if I could use this image here. This one of the two people with the masks on as a mascot campaign poster, campaign kind of thing just for their community. And I said, well, I’m Tlingit from Southeast Alaska. I don’t want to be the poster child for your region. I think you should find an Aleutic or a Yupik to do that. That would be more culturally appropriate. It got me thinking that it would be pretty amazing to do an all Alaska native, statewide campaign and I went back to this tribal Corporation tribal Housing Authority and I said, hey, you know, I’m not going to be able to be the be the poster child for your campaign, but maybe you want to throw some money down on this other thing and they said no, we really have to have it benefit our residents here at the Travel Housing Authority. And I said, well, I’m going to go with it. I’m going to run with it and now we have four or five artists who are registered as contributors and we have three or four backers also who want to throw money at the project. I don’t know if we will reach $100,000 in fundraising. It’s really hard for artists to raise money without a non-profit. That is the reality that people want to know where they can write their check to. My non-profit Spirit Uprising, which is the next question, is not officially 501C3 certified because we haven’t done our quarterly meetings and submitted it to the IRS, so we don’t have 501C3 status, but we should because this mask campaign would have been a ton easier with that.
So yeah, it’s been really good.

Yeah, I’m excited about the future of that Mask Up campaign and we’ll see how it goes. Still have people to reach back to. We do have a fiscal sponsor. The Juno Arts and Humanities Council did approve fiscal sponsorship, meaning we can say you can write your donation check to the Jack and it will get to us.
So that’s really cool.

That’s exciting.
Let’s see where do you see your nonprofit moving towards in the coming years? Or what would you like Spirit Uprising to accomplish in the future?
I’d like Spirit Uprising to host an annual gathering of weavers for anywhere from four to six weeks every summer for weavers to gather and weave together. Maybe it would be actually September or October when fishing is all done and we get a little time before Christmas. That’s what I want us to do and continue sharing knowledge together. So, having an annual gathering.

Do you have any projects coming up you’re working on there really excited about?
This one. This Chilkat blanket for the Houston Museum of Natural Science, it is merging Chilkat technique and collage so you can’t actually see the pattern cause it’s here, but it’ll actually go live with Smithsonian Folklife Magazine in about a month or so.

What inspires you to teach other artists?
What inspires me is the belief that we all have something valuable to share and that the fear of making and putting ourselves in the world is what holds most of us back. So that’s the most exciting part about teaching other artists is. Getting them through the fear and into the excitement. And using that excitement enthusiasm to excel.

What’s the most challenging part if you’re running your own business?
Receipts and receipts and receipts and taxes? Yep. Receipts, receipts, receipts, taxes, and email replies. Always the emails. I’ve had to compartmentalize when to respond to emails so that I’m not trying to do it when I’m weaving.

Do you have a favorite piece of artwork you’ve created? What inspired you to create it?
This blanket that I’m working on is the most exciting one so far, but doesn’t that feel like the same when you’re working on a new piece? You’re like, “this is the best one yet, yay!”

Do you have specific goals for the future of your company?
Specific goals being I would love to make a button robe, a black and red blanket or wool blanket with buttons adorning it every month. One a month. I would like to make a pair of earrings every single day and I would like to finish a Chilkat blanket every year and continue teaching virtual classes every year on my Patreon.

If you had one piece of advice to give an inspiring artist who’s launching their creative business, what would it be?
Study everything you can about the psychology of fear. Find the book “You Are a Badass at Making Money”. Also, read the first book called “You Are a Badass” and push through the fear. Make the art, don’t let your mental state keep you from making art.

What would you say is the most important investment you’ve made in yourself in your business?
That mental state, positive mind, the power of success through a positive mental attitude that- is the most important investment.

What inspired you to start a nonprofit?
The need for nonprofits that support weaving and hopefully at some point being able to be a 501C3. So that we can fundraise for things like the #WHYAKMASKUP campaign.

In what ways do you think Covid has changed the landscape of working professionals, artists and artist small businesses?
We have had to go online and explode on Instagram and take really good photographs and rely on each other a lot. Like the sharing of each other’s work is wow. We just have to do it.

Thank you so much again for meeting with me.
Thanks for having me. Thanks for letting me work while I was talking.






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