Seattle based artist Preston Singletary is a master of his medium: glass. Descended from the Tlingit of Southwest Alaska, Singletary has made a name for himself by continuing the rich artistic traditions of the Native cultures of the Pacific Northwest by inventively working with ancient motifs and forms in the new medium of glass.
Through the years, Singletary has achieved stunning results. His latest show, “Raven and the Box of Daylight” – which opened at the Museum of Glass Oct. 3 – Singletary has taken things up a notch by transforming the museum into a series of installations that tell the Native story of Raven, the light-bringer, the personage who accomplished the feat of bringing light into the world of darkness.
In summary, Raven is the trickster and shape-shifter of the mythology of local Native Americans. The story of Raven as light-bringer is as rich in symbolism and layers of meaning as that of any scriptural tradition. This one has been preserved through oral transmission; a story told and retold generation after generation. Singletary worked with Walter Porter, a Tlingit keeper of the story as well as a mythologist and historian. The exhibition was curated by Miranda Belarde-Lewis, PhD (Zuni/Tlingit). Juniper Shuey helped with the creation of the video projections in the show.
In the story, Raven is a white bird, and the world is in darkness. The light is jealously kept as a private possession in the house of a rich man. Raven takes upon himself the task of stealing the light from this man. To accomplish the feat, Raven infiltrates the nobleman’s family by planting himself in the womb of the man’s daughter and being born into the family as the rich man’s grandson. One remarkable feature of the episode of this virgin birth is that Raven is born in humble surroundings, not unlike the nativity of Jesus in the New Testament.
Once in the nobleman’s house, Raven is able to open the three boxes in which the rich man keeps the stars, the moon and the sun. These go up the smoke hole and provide light to the exterior world. Furious at Raven’s betrayal, the rich man holds Raven over a fire and Raven is turned black from the smoke.
Singletary brings vitality to the story by transforming the museum into a series of spaces, each of which functions as a chapter of the tale. Visitors to the museum are thus treated to a full sensory experience of the tale. Glass sculptures illustrate parts of the story and each space includes sound effects, video projections and lighting effects that give the whole show a magical impact.
In Tlingit cultural tradition (and that of the local tribes), the key stories were conveyed by a similar sensory experience with masked dancers, music, drumming and songs that allowed for a live participation in the story. Singletary manages to extend the tradition with new media and technology. His doing so is an act of generosity. In reaching beyond tribal and ethnic affiliation, Singletary allows everyone to come into the light of this rich story.
Walking through the museum, a visitor goes from the dark, ancient rain forest and into the richness of the nobleman’s house. There is a fantastic sculpture of the Raven in his primordial form as the white bird. The nobleman’s house is furnished with a display of lush objects (which function as something of a mini retrospective of some of Singletary’s past work).
Next, there is a mysterious room where the three boxes are kept, the boxes that contain the stars, the sun and the moon. This moody space precedes the entry into the glorious and expansive final room, which illustrates the world of the first sunrise. It is a large space of sunshine and light that the Raven has made possible. This room is filled with magnificent bust portraits of people dressed in garments decorated with geometric designs and decked out in fanciful hats, many of them surmounted by animal forms. The colors of the glass are a lush as candies and bath products made for the rich and famous. Stepping into this final room is like coming into a treasure vault or the most holy part of a fantastic temple.
“Raven and the Box of Daylight” is not a simple museum exhibit of precious objects; it is a dramatic experience that has a palpable impact upon the viewer.
The show is on view through August of next year. This show is a monumental achievement by an artistic genius. For more information, visit museumofglass.org.