Inside the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., an exquisite, carved-glass box glows from within. This is the Box of Daylight, a mythological vessel that is part of an ancient Northwest Native story, brought to life in new ways by Preston Singletary, the Seattle-based, internationally recognized artist whose Tlingit heritage merges with his cutting-edge approaches to glass.
The exhibition, “Preston Singletary: Raven and the Box of Daylight” — which debuted in 2018 at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma and recently opened at the National Museum of the American Indian (running through Jan. 29, 2023) — tells the story of how light was given to the world by the powerful, mischievous figure of Raven. Raven tricked his way into the house of a wealthy old man who owned boxes containing the sun, the moon and the stars. Transforming himself into a human child, he begged for the boxes, released their contents and provided the world with light.
The fact that this story, told by this artist, is being showcased by the NMAI, which is highly selective in offering solo shows, underscores the importance of the story to many Northwest Coast Indigenous cultures and the accomplishments of Singletary himself. For decades now, Singletary has reminded us of the lasting Indigenous practices of adopting new techniques and materials and the merging of tradition with invention.
According to Amy Van Allen, the Smithsonian’s project manager for the exhibition, NMAI officials are very excited to host “Raven and the Box of Daylight” because “Preston’s art brings this story to life in such a vibrant, accessible way,” and because they hope to highlight Native art and artists’ “continuing innovation and creativity.”
When Singletary began working with glass in 1982, he learned European glassblowing alongside luminaries Benjamin Moore and Dante Marioni. About five years later, wanting to introduce Native subjects and styles into his glasswork, he sought out mentors such as the artist Joe David (Nuu-Chah-Nulth), who expanded his knowledge of Native culture, including about the highly significant Northwest Coast formline design (the intricate style of expanding and contracting lines).
Since then, Singletary has become highly regarded in glass art circles, the wider art world, and Native communities both locally and around the world.
“Raven and the Box of Daylight” is Singletary’s most ambitious project to date, full of technical innovations in individual glass pieces and multimedia experiences throughout the show. Light, sound and video installations feature Raven stories spoken by Tlingit elders and music and soundscapes created by Singletary, who is also a musician.
We spoke with the artist in his South Lake Union studio, just before the NMAI exhibition opened. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
It’s quite a distinction to have your work shown at the Museum of the American Indian. How are you feeling?
Well, it’s extremely flattering and humbling. It’s something you would like to attain, like getting to a certain point in your career, but you never know if it will happen or not. So, it’s overwhelming and surprising, but I’ve also had this sort of calm around it because it’s been in the works for such a long time.
That’s right, the opening was postponed for a year due to the pandemic, and, of course, you began to develop the show years ago. Take us back to your original idea. Why an exhibition about the story of Raven and the Box of Daylight?
The Raven story is one of the most well-known on the Northwest Coast. Raven Steals the Sun, Raven Brings the Light, Raven and the Box of Knowledge — all of those titles are versions of that story. I’ve always dabbled with Raven imagery and touched on aspects of the story but then I met a Tlingit elder named Walter Porter, a mythologist who sort of dissected the stories in the same way that Joseph Campbell would have, drawing parallels to other theologies and mythologies. Walter opened my eyes to a lot of symbolism, which gave me the inspiration to create different kinds of sculptures. And that informed this direction for me, that the sculptures would bring viewers through the story.
Walter and I were going to be working on this exhibition together, but, unfortunately, he passed away. I had to find another curator and immediately thought of Miranda Belarde-Lewis because she’s Tlingit and Zuni and a professor at the University of Washington. She does some really deep work on the science of objects made by Native people and the uses and the reasons behind them.
So your glass objects guide viewers through the narrative of Raven releasing light into the world, with lots of other moments along the way. Some of your sculptures are lit up with video projections or surrounded by light and sound installations. Why are those immersive elements important to you?
I’ve played with that on small levels over the years. Many years ago, around 2000, I created an [immersive] installation feel at the Traver Gallery, where I show in Seattle. And even made some music because that’s my other passion. I work with Native themes, Native musicians — it’s my other mode of artistic expression. So, with this project, I wanted to transform the viewer to another place. The lighting and environment create a metaphor for going from the darkness to the light.
I was able to work with Juniper Shuey — a visual artist doing projected video, who has a theater background — and he and I designed the exhibition together, developing video projections as backdrops for some of the scenes and animating some individual sculptures throughout the galleries. I wanted to create this illusion of movement, of transformation. Like Raven’s fleeting movements and changes. And the experience would be different for each person. With some of my musician friends, we created five or six soundscapes that blend together as you go through the exhibition. A sound artist, Matt Starritt, also worked with us, setting up directional speakers, so depending on where you’re standing, you’re getting different blends of different music tracks.
I’m wondering if that’s connected to the way you play with light and shadow? You’ve been doing that for a while with your glass sculptures, having light shine through in certain ways, setting up different ways to experience the work.
Right. And, it’s so symbolic here. Like with one of my sculptures that symbolizes Raven transforming from a bird to human form. He’s kind of a humanoid figure — a human head with a bird beak — and video is projected onto it, so you get the shadow effect and movement and these iterations of transformation.
It’s like viewers can intuit the story through these multisensory, artistic methods. For some Native artists, there can be a kind of push-pull between individual creative expression and a responsibility to learn and educate. How do you feel about that?
Absolutely, I would like for people to learn about the culture. I feel like when you become a keeper of cultural knowledge, it becomes a responsibility. I’m really trying to bring honor to the story and the art form and present it in a new way. That is kind of my hope. That people will be surprised, and, in the process, learn about the universal nature of the mythology. This story touches on the world in darkness. And who brings the light? It could be Raven or Jesus — it’s a metaphor that people can understand. If you look at it really closely, you can see that we have the same kind of human experience.
This is an opportunity to transform people’s perspectives on what we do as Native people. It humanizes the perspective of Native people and declares the fact that we’ve endured. There’s a little bit of a sense of pride that I have by being able to show work in this context, that this is something that I’m declaring: This is who we are and this is what we are doing.
What are some of the changes you’ve seen in the recognition of Indigenous contemporary artists?
It’s definitely grown. It’s an exciting time for Native cultures. There’s a big push for land recognition, but that can be nothing more than lip service. It doesn’t return land to the Native people. I mean, it’s important. It’s nice to hear it. But it doesn’t really affect the dynamic very immediately. But more recognition of artists, more shows, more commissions — that does something.
As artists in the old days, we would have been making the work solely for the community. Now, the house leaders and clan leaders are not as financially empowered as they were when they owned all the land. They could commission totem poles and objects to be made, Chilkat robes to be woven, button blankets to be made. Now, many clan leaders are important figureheads for the community, but they’re not financially empowered in the way they were. By pushing for the acceptance of Native artists, in the context of public art or getting high profile shows, it leads to financial empowerment.
I work collaboratively with other Indigenous artists from around the world and that gives me perspective on my concern for my own community. Oftentimes it’s a common experience with imperialism or oppression. And then from that, the community survives.
In many ways, artists are the people who see things. They make things with their ideas and their hands to represent what’s going on. It’s exciting to see what’s happening — art that feels really contemporary, like something new.
Your work has been welcomed in Native community centers, cultural museums, “fine art” galleries and glass museums. Why do you think your work moves so easily between these contexts?
My work, I feel, has always tried to achieve recognition as something more than “ethnic art.” But at the same time, that’s what gives it its power. It is connected to history, a personal connection through my ethnic background and matrilineal society all the way from my mother to my grandmother and great grandmother. I’m a part of that continuum.