The Museum of Glass’s newest exhibition, which opens today and will remain in the museum through October 2019, is a unique blend of traditional story and contemporary multimedia. Preston Singletary: Raven and the Box of Daylight is a gorgeous mosaic of glass representations of characters and items in the Tlingit story of the Raven, the trickster who brought the world from darkness to light. These glass works are complemented by visual projections and the voices of two Tlingit elders, who tell the story in the background of the exhibition’s four rooms. The result is an immersive experience of a Native American story about how the world became illuminated — a story that speaks to universal themes of love, betrayal, and sacrifice.
The exhibition beckons visitors into a space that is designed to have the ambiance of Southeast Alaska, the home of the Tlingit tribe. A white raven sits in front of the first entrance, his caws heard loud overhead, mingled with the voices of the Tlingit storytellers.
“In the beginning, before this was Tacoma, before the Puyallup were the Puyallup or the Tlingit the Tlingit, the world was in darkness and Raven was a white bird,” said Miranda Belarde-Lewis, the curator of the exhibition who, like artist Preston Singletary, knows the story of Raven from her childhood. “He was a shapeshifter, a trickster, and he could take on different forms, which was represented by his white color.”
This white bird leads visitors through the exhibition, which chronologically reveals the storyline of how Raven brought light to the world. Tired of the darkness, Raven discovers that the daylight is being hoarded by a wealthy man, and that this man has a daughter. The trickster changes his shape several times until he is ingested by the daughter in the form of a hemlock needle in her drinking water, at which point he shape shifts once again to be a human baby growing in her womb. He is then born into the wealthy family who possesses the light he wants to set free into the world.
This process is told through glass pieces made by Singletary and video projections designed by video artist Juniper Shuey. “I wanted to create this as a theatrical installation,” said Singletary about his decision to include the projections.
The next portion of the story is told from within the clan house, the outside of which is made up of a house screen and house posts that longtime Museum of Glass patrons might recognize from the 2008 retrospective of Singletary’s work.
Inside the clan house is a display of different pieces Singletary made over about a year — baskets, a helmet, dishes — highlighting his different styles. “My skills evolved over several years, and I was able to make (the pieces) more and more complex, showing a real variety of different sculptural styles I played with over the year,” said Singletary. The pieces are displayed on terrace steps, a visual based on 19th century photos of Tlingit houses.
Traditionally, Singletary said, one could only see the precious objects inside of a clan house by invitation; everyone did not have the honor of entering one of these homes. Despite this tradition, however, Singletary’s artistic interpretation of Tlingit culture in a museum space, where anyone can come in and see the work, was welcomed by his community.
“In my experience, a lot of elders are really encouraging of new things and ideas,” said Singletary. “I’ve been doing this work for 30 years now, and the more I do it, the more it becomes a tradition, in a way. It’s not a tradition in the sense that it’s used or worn or danced, but it’s another way of interpreting culture for the next generation.”
Deeper within the clan house are the boxes of light — the stars, the moon, and the sun — that are the most prized possessions of the wealthy man who is now Raven’s grandfather. The man loves Raven and cannot refuse his grandson the box full of stars to play with. Raven opens the box and releases the stars, and goes on to do the same with the moon and the sun — the grandfather cannot tell him no, and forgives him each time.
But after all the light has been released, the grandfather learns that his grandson is in fact Raven, the trickster, and gathers up all the pitch in the house and throws it in the fire, creating a massive, billowing smoke over which he holds Raven. Over the smoke, Raven becomes a black bird, no longer able to shift forms, which is the sacrifice he makes for bringing the daylight into the world.
The last room of the exhibition represents the world drenched in daylight, the world as we know it now. It is full of human faces made of glass. When the sun came out, explained Belarde-Lewis, everyone ran, and depending on what they were wearing — feathers, furs, scales — they became the animals of the sky, the forest, the water. “The people here that stood strong and brave became the Tlingit, they became humans,” said Belarde-Lewis. “Those are the four groups represented here in this room.”
This final room features music composed by Singletary himself, who said that his original passion was making music. The faces, many of which were blown in the studio at the Museum of Glass, are haunting and lovely, all facing forward, surrounded by Singletary’s ethereal soundtrack and hypnotizing video projections dancing along the back wall. In this story, it is thanks to Raven that we have the light to see these faces, and thanks to him too that we have such a wide variety of animals in the air, water, and forest.
“This is just one creation story of the native people of Turtle Island,” said Belarde-Lewis. “There are so many more. By showing one specific story of creation and acknowledging that native stories have resonance with all of us, we hope that visitors to the museum think back to their own origin stories and find an intimate way to connect back to all of these amazing works.”