Native Arts | Clarissa Hudson

Totemic Theory I and II (detail) by Clarissa Hudson. painting, southwest art.
Totemic Theory I and II (detail) by Clarissa Hudson

By Dottie Indyke

Clarissa Hudson grew up outdoors, spending long hours in her father’s fishing boat basking in the vastness and the sudden, dramatic storms of the open waters around her hometown of Juneau, AK. If forced to go inside, she’d spend her time making intricate drawings of old sailing ships and identifying every part. Hudson’s course was set early on. “All along I’ve been following an intangible light toward art,” says the 45-year-old artist.

Over the years, Hudson’s art has taken many forms. In high school, when she was introduced to Alaskan Native traditions, she carved her first cedar box. Later she toured with a troupe of traditional Tlingit dancers. After her first child was born, she sewed custom clothing and hats, and she and husband Bill decorated their home with handmade furnishings and decor modeled on Northwest Coast artwork. She is an accomplished garden landscaper, weaver, and most recently, an award-winning painter.

Although she was artistic from an early age, Hudson’s identification as a Native person came relatively late. “I didn’t know there was a distinction between the races,” Hudson says. “I thought the color of your skin had to do with the sun. At 16, when it finally dawned on me, it was a big wake-up call.”

Because she was of mixed heritage her mother is from the Tlingit village of Hoonah, AK, and her father is a Filipino American from Seattle—she was teased by classmates and never felt totally accepted by either group. Confronting her parents on the subject, she was told that this was the way of the world.

Still, Hudson has had a charmed life. She fell in love with her husband at first sight, at the age of 14, started a family at 20, and, as a result of her energy and skill, simultaneously made art as she raised her three children.

In the late 1980s Hudson learned Chilkat weaving (images inspired by to-temic art made on an upright loom) from master artist Jennie Thlunat. Her longtime goal to complete a Chilkat blanket—a lengthy and laborious process—was recently realized when Hudson received a commission from a Native chief in Canada to copy a family blanket with a whale and grizzly bear design that hangs in a Canadian museum. In two years, during moves between Juneau, Santa Fe, NM, and Pagosa Springs, CO, where she now lives, the artist handspun and dyed 1,000 yards of merino wool mixed with yellow cedar bark and finished the piece, which received its ceremonial initiation last fall at a potlatch in western British Columbia.

At the same time she crafted button blankets made from her own motifs. The blankets originated in 19th-century Alaska when Natives were inspired by their first encounter with the mother-of-pearl buttons on European naval uniforms to create draped shawls with the seal of their tribe on the back.

The most recent addition to her broad repertoire is a painting technique that won her top honors in her class at last year’s Santa Fe Indian Market. “I was influenced by a friend who does Russian-style avant-garde work,” she says. “He makes an image look as if it’s three-dimensional, as if there’s geometry and light coming through.” Hudson decided to incorporate this style into Northwest Coast art. “I had this idea to do paintings of columns that look like carved totem poles,” she says. “I was playing around, and I entered the paintings in Indian Market thinking that I’d just show people what I was doing. I was surprised by the award, but I think I won not so much for my technique but for the concept.”

The experimentation continues as Hudson makes her fifth woven Chilkat robe, landscapes her garden, carves sculpture in red cedar in a manner similar to her paintings, and prepares for an upcoming trip to the Pilchuck School of Glass in Washington where she and Preston Singletary will work with eight other artists on a 30-foot glass totem pole. “I’m just creative,” Hudson says of the meaning of art in her life. “My art is an extension of me. As I create, it creates me.”

Clarissa Hudson’s art may be seen at Stonington Gallery in Seattle, WA, and Inuit Gallery in Vancouver, B.C.

Featured in “Native Arts” September 2001