Abel Ryan works on a mask and answers questions during his Native Artist Residency at the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka. Photo by Michelle Theall.
Abel Ryan, a member of the Laxiboo clan of Metlakatla, is a Tsimshian artist and teacher who has worked in wood carving, metal engraving, painting, drum making, and other art forms. He studied under master carver Jack Hudson in Metlakatla and now lives and works in Juneau. He shares some of his work on Instagram @alwysabel and Facebook as Abel Ryan. As told to and edited by Alexander Deedy.
Can you tell me more about formline art? What distinguishes it from other art forms?
Northwest coast formline design is a unique art form that reaches from the Columbia River to Tlingit territory as far north as Yakutat, and even farther through trade. It primarily uses shapes like ovoids, U shapes, and S shapes. All along the coast, differences in aesthetics are accepted by the people, depending on the talents of the artists in the villages and how they felt the art form should move forward. Tsimshian and Tlingit and Haida style, especially southern Tlingit, are all very, very similar. There are just minor differences in how the lines are carried in thickness and the amount of detail and the relationship between positive space and negative space. It basically comes down to an aesthetic that our people have come to like and appreciate.
If you think back on Jack Hudson, is there a lesson or way of life he taught you that stands out?
Learn to recognize your mistakes. Don’t try to erase them. Accept them for what they are, and work toward correcting those mistakes and finding ways to avoid making them again in the future. In doing so, not only will your artwork evolve into something that is better, but so will you.
Now that you’re a teacher, what do you hope to pass on to your students?
I want people to enjoy the work that I’m teaching them to do. I want them to feel comfortable working with me and not be afraid to try. I want people to know and understand that it’s okay to not be perfect. It’s okay to make mistakes. It is when you are making mistakes that you have the greatest opportunity to learn, understand, and appreciate—to a degree you never knew possible—what it is you’re doing and, most importantly, who you are.
You mentioned a couple of times embracing the imperfection of art and humanity. Can you give me an example of that in your artwork?
Let’s take, for instance, a box design. I know a lot of artists, especially in formline, who try to get the most perfect symmetry in their piece, going so far as to work digitally so that it’s a perfectly symmetrical piece. I like to think of the art form as being a little bit more organic. The most I’ll do to get the symmetry is I’ll draw a line down the middle. Then I will do the best I can to draw it as close as I can to match the other side of that line. And it’s not always perfect, but I’ve got all of the forms that I would need in there. I feel that really makes the piece unique and makes it more interesting. None of us are perfect human beings. Our friends definitely know that, and they accept our flaws with our successes. For some of them, it’s our flaws that make us more interesting.