David Boxley is giving his students the one thing he never had—a devoted teacher.
Boxley, a First Peoples Fund 2013 Cultural Capital grantee, 2012 Community Spirit Award recipient and Tsimshian carver from Metlakatla, Alaska, spent two months this summer guiding students through a hands-on workshop to learn the Native Northwest Coast design techniques.
The workshop, which ran six hours a day once a week for eight weeks, was held in Washington, where Boxley resides and creates art, including boxes, rattles, masks and prints bearing the traditional Northwest Coast design.
It’s an opportunity he never had growing up.
“I’m basically self-taught,” he said.
Boxley was raised by his grandparents, who passed along the culture and language of the tribe. After graduating from college, Boxley became a teacher and spent lots of time researching the traditional carving methods of his ancestors through museum collections.
In 1986, Boxley decided to work on the art form full time, and left his teaching job. He has since become an established, nationally recognized Native artist, as well as a voice in his community for the resurgence of the Sm'algyax language and the Tsimshian culture.
“There’s a lot of awareness now about the art, culture and language,” he said. “It’s really important to me. I would very much like to be remembered as a culture bearer, not just an artist.”
He also hopes to teach more—and learn more.
“I’m always excited to look at museums and collections,” he said. “I’ve never lost my enthusiasm for creating art in our tribe. I’m still young enough to learn.”
One of the dangers for artists is ceasing the desire to be challenged, he said. “The problem is once people start selling, they don’t try to improve,” he said.
The Northwest Coast design, in particular, is complicated and takes years to learn, he added. “The rules we follow are pretty specific,” he said. “You have to learn the style so that knowledge of the art is perpetuated.”
Boxley, who said it does get lonely sometimes as a working artist, has been encouraged by the First Peoples Fund.
“It is good to know there is a Native-based organization wanting to further strengthen the aspirations of guys like me,” he said.