Preston Singletary | Glass Act

Whale Hat [1999], blown and sandblasted glass, 9 x 18. glass, southwest art.
Whale Hat [1999], blown and sandblasted glass, 9 x 18.

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

When Preston Singletary’s great-grandmother was a girl, a family member gave her a bear cub to raise. The grizzly bear had unusual taste buds: It loved taffy. Restaurant owners in Juneau, AK, in the 1880s grew familiar with the sight of the child purchasing the sweet candy with money she earned selling berries.

Singletary tells this story to explain a portion of a glass totem pole he recently finished. “On the bottom of the pole I have carved an image of a bear cub holding a piece of taffy, and the figure on the top is my great-grandmother,” he says. “Traditionally, poles were used to illustrate family stories. I’m trying to bring family history into my artwork.”

Raven Releases the Sun [1998], blown and sandblasted glass with metal stand, 20 x 20. glass, southwest art.
Raven Releases the Sun [1998], blown and sandblasted glass with metal stand, 20 x 20.

Singletary’s great-grandparents were full-blooded Tlingit Indians from southeast Alaska, people who dwelled on the edge of the North American continent. Today the Seattle-based artist also dwells on a certain edge—the cutting edge of Northwest Coast art. Though he lives thousands of miles from his ancestors’ home, inside his spare, white-walled studio he re-creates their stories and traditions in his innovative glass work. The 35-year-old is recognized as the first Northwest Coast Native American artist to be trained at the prestigious Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, WA. Only a small number of Native American artists even work in glass today. Historically the Tlingits have worked in wood—carving masks, totem poles, vessels, and bowls.

“Preston is taking Northwest Coast art where it has never been before,” says Gary Wyatt, an owner of the Spirit Wrestler Gal-lery in Vancouver, British Columbia. “He is a bridge artist. A majority of local collectors and corporate supporters for the arts collect both glass and Northwest Coast art. He has been the artist who bridged these two collections.”

The Tlingit rain-hat form is Singletary’s signature work a distinct conical shape on which he carves traditional tribal designs. His forebears made the rain hat by weaving cedar bark. Their hats

The artist working at Pilchuck Glass School in 1997. glass, southwest art.
The artist working at Pilchuck Glass School in 1997.

were various shades of brown with a rough-hewn texture. Singletary’s contemporary hats of glass are luminous vessels usually rendered in muted shades of amber, grey, blue, and green. The pale colors allow him to work with shadows and transparent effects, he says. When Singletary’s hat forms are turned upside down and a light positioned above them, the vessels cast intriguing shadows on the surface where they sit.

The artist found this out quite by chance in 1991. His aunt, Teresa Sherman, attended one of his shows at Seattle’s Benjamin Moore, Inc., a fine-art glass studio where the artist has worked since 1982. One of the first examples of his hat form, a cobalt-blue work, was on exhibit. During the show, Sherman asked Singletary to put the glass hat on a pedestal with a spotlight above it. “When we moved it, about 20 people gathered around to see how the light affected it,” Singletary says. “Light shimmered through the hat and created a shadow effect. People oohed and aahed. It was a magical moment, a discovery point.”

Family Story Pole [1999], blown and sandblasted glass, 22 x 27. glass, southwest art.
Family Story Pole [1999], blown and sandblasted glass, 22 x 27.

Singletary’s glass hats are more than elegant forms. Etched on their surfaces are the crests and symbols of various Tlingit fami-lies: bears, ravens, frogs, wolves, and killer whales. In his great-grandmother’s day, crests played an extremely important role in the culture, embodying a particular family’s history, social status, and destiny. Tlingit houses were filled with artwork depicting these crests.

The killer whale, Singletary’s family crest, was thought to be strong and ferocious. “The animal was believed to have a lot of power and therefore it was reserved for a few noble families,” Singletary says. A family also claimed the myths that were associated with animal crests. The Tlingits held killer whales in great awe and refused to hunt them, for example. At the same time they also believed frogs were associated with witchcraft because they released a poisonous slime. Witches used the slime to make their victim’s eyes bulge like those of a frog.

When Singletary employs animal imagery in his work he often borrows from another Northwest Coast Native American tradition in art: incorporating motifs within his animal representations. A human figure might be woven within a bear or raven. Such imagery symbolizes transformation and can evoke a surreal, macabre feeling. Tlingits believed that some animals and shamans had the power to transform themselves into various creatures. The raven, for example, could assume a human form and trick people out of possessions.

Singletary says he is not necessarily a student of art history, but paintings by Surrealists such as Salvador Dali attracted him long before he became a glass blower. “I have always liked their work because it is challenging and groundbreaking,” he says. “They tap into how the mind works and portray the symbolism of the dream world in their artwork.” To his surprise, Singletary discovered through research that the Surrealists were fascinated with Northwest Coast Native American imagery. One book in his studies, Art of the Northern Tlingit [1999 University of Washington Press] by Aldona Jonaitis, explains the connection between the avant-garde artists and the Northwest Coast people.

Wolf Crest Hat with Potlatch Rings [1999], blown and sandcarved glass, 15 x 18 x 18. glass, southwest art.
Wolf Crest Hat with Potlatch Rings [1999], blown and sandcarved glass, 15 x 18 x 18.

“The Surrealists seem to have admired Northwest Coast art because they believed it embodied what they themselves strived for in their art,” writes Jonaitis. “According to the Surrealists, art should explore the worlds of the subconscious that hid be-neath the facade of the flesh, the worlds that Freud and Jung had revealed.” Jonaitis adds that the Surrealists thought Native Americans retained a universal collective mythology and symbolism that modern man has lost.

Today Singletary, a student of the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, has an avid interest in the workings of the mind and its relationship to art. In fact, the artist says it was a creeping feeling in the subconscious that led him to research his heritage more deeply. He grew up listening to stories of his rich family history, and as he got older his curiosity intensi-fied. “You discover yourself through paying attention to the way the mind works on a subconscious level,” Singletary says. “Your subconscious gives you the information that leads you and your art in different directions.”

For Singletary the Tlinglit hat form symbolizes a connection between his past work and a new direction in his work. Those familiar with his early glass pieces know he has evolved from Italian- and Scandinavian-inspired work to art with Native American themes. Interestingly, he was first drawn into the world of glass art somewhat coincidentally.

Singletary’s best friend in high school was Dante Marioni, a well-known glass artist today and the son of glass artist Paul Marioni. After high school Dante helped Singletary get a job as a night watchman at the Glass Eye (now Benjamin Moore, Inc.), one of Seattle’s first glass studios. At the time Singletary’s passion was music. He played bass guitar in several bands, including most recently the funk-rock group Ironing Pants Definitely. Following nightly stints in Seattle’s clubs and concert halls, he rushed to Glass Eye to stoke the fires in the furnace for the artists, who arrived at 7 a.m.

After watching masters like Italian Lino Tagliapietra, who came to the Glass Eye for demonstrations, Singletary became fascinated with the process. In 1984 he attended his first session at Pilchuck Glass School amid the rapidly growing popularity of glass art in the Seattle area. At Pilchuck he worked as a glass-blowing assistant to the legendary Dale Chihuly and studied with Tagliapietra. In his early works, Singletary pulled from all his influences but primarily turned to Italian glass designer Napoleone Martinuzzi, known for his classic art-deco pieces, for inspiration. He created his Prestonuzzi works, graceful decolike vessels with voluptuous forms and bold, saturated colors.

By the beginning of the 1990s, Singletary’s work began to appear in shows around the country, and he was an eager observer of glass art created in all corners of the world. In 1993 he traveled to Sweden to the Kosta Boda glass factory to teach a workshop. While there he developed a series of vessels he called The Genies, three pieces in contrasting colors. It was an important trip for Singletary personally and professionally. One of the first people he met at the glass factory was Asa Sandlund, a talented graduate student who worked as an assistant to the artists. When his stay was up, he decided to extend his trip another week to spend time with Sandlund. Singletary then returned to Seattle, but the courtship continued long distance. After several cross-Atlantic forays, the couple married in 1995.

Singletary credits his wife for giving him the support needed to take his art in a new direction. Last year, he began studying Northwest Coast art with Steve Brown, associate curator of Native American art at the Seattle Art Museum, and Marvin Oliver, associate professor of American Indian studies at the University of Washington, Seattle.

The Native American-themed glass work he is creating is more difficult and time-consuming than his Prestonuzzi and Genie series, but Singletary says it’s more rewarding. “I find it very fulfilling to make pieces like this and understand where I come from,” he says. “It actually gives me solace to know that I have such a fascinating heritage to explore and be proud of.”

These days Singletary’s glass hats and totem poles are circumnavigating the globe. In October 1998 he made his first trip to Venice, Italy, to study glass techniques. He participated in an accompanying exhibit that opened in Venice in February. This spring he was featured in an exhibition at Butters Gallery in Portland, OR. In October his work is on exhibit in Kanazu, Japan, at the opening of a new glass studio there. Seattle’s William Traver Gallery presents Singletary’s new work this November. The exhibit includes a new form, glass boxes, and also a fresh version of his signature piece: rain hats topped with figurative ornaments like fins, bears, and wolves.

Singletary’s great-grandmother died in 1980 at the age of 102. Throughout her life she worked to keep the Tlingit traditions alive through such gestures as giving each family member an Indian name. Singletary’s name is Cochane, which roughly translates to “the sound of a rattling chain.” He says the name conjures up in his mind the concept of dependability, a force that is as strong and as solid as a steel chain. Another observer, however, noted that Cochane is an appropriate moniker for Singletary because the artist is “rattling the chains of tradition” in Northwest Coast art.

“I think my great-grandmother would be proud of what I am doing,” Singletary says. “She was an independent woman who left Alaska for Seattle a very radical thing to do. I feel a great comfort knowing I am paying homage to her and our Native American roots.”

Featured in August 1999