Yaadachoon, before being placed along Juneau’s Seawalk. Photo by Michael Penn.
“There is a lot of security in regurgitating what’s been done,” said Robert Mills, standing in a warehouse in the industrial heart of Juneau among a vise, electric sander, and metal saw blades.
He feels a responsibility to contemplate being an Alaska Native artist, to explore the ethics of balancing authentic traditional artistry with modern marketability.
Mills, from the southeast Alaska town of Kake, has a commanding physical presence and looks stern. His speech is measured, laden with a cadence of pensive tones. His notable lack of contractions yields a definitive sentiment of absolute truth to his words. But on this cold, pre-spring day, he is dwarfed by his most recent creation.
Two hundred and fifty pounds of blazing, buffed aluminum arches forming serpents and tails tear across an enormous sculpture. Mills, with metal fabricator Brian Crapo, has just finished construction of a 20-foot 9-inch canoe, named Yaadachoon.
In September 2020, the City and Borough of Juneau designated $330,000 of CARES Act funding specifically to employ local artists. The Juneau CARES ArtWorks grant program was modeled after one dating back to the Roosevelt administration, which established various cultural programs to provide employment during the Great Depression.
A selection team chose 35 projects that employed over 130 artists and creative workers. All finished projects become the property of the CBJ, for the purposes of public art.
Mills chose a canoe for his application because he has always liked its aesthetics. “In its purist form, all it is is a vessel,” Mills shrugged. “Tlingit people have used these for years to get us from point to point.”
Mills also likes to devise projects that are uncomfortably thought-provoking. His history contains an ugly component of colonialization-fueled trauma and residual bitterness. When dramatic sentiment is communicated measuredly, conscientiously, and calmly, it affects the reception of the message.
According to Mills, Yaadachoon “addresses the binary political climate of today, represented by both sides of the canoe. In our journey to venture through this pandemic, it represents the need to work together, no matter which side we are on, to continue to move us forward.” In a traditional Tlingit canoe there is a line of paddlers on each side, port and starboard.
“People on the opposite side are going to be people of many different ages, sexes, races,” Mills said. “It’s not exclusive. Where we are going is fully dependent on the other person rowing. Are we going in circles? Straight?”
In Língit, Mills’ people’s native language, Yaadachoon translates to “straight ahead,” which, Mills explained, “is kind of humorous, when talking about humanity, especially during this political climate when the pendulum seems to vacillate to the extremes. But also, ‘straight ahead’ kind of brings us hope; otherwise, what do we have to look forward to?”
The timeline for Mills’ sculpture was tight, the concept bold. He needed assistance. Mills had worked with metal fabricator, Brian Crapo, in the past.
“There’s a weird space you enter in with males,” Mills said. “Specifically with ones who are skilled workers, where you feel like you have to measure up. That didn’t exist with Brian. We were just able to have discourse about many things, not just work in the workshop, but art, and music.”
Mills said Crapo understood everything Mills explained to him about what sentiment he intended to convey with Yaadachoon, and that Crapo presented ideas that Mills had not thought about.
“The whole project was research and development,” Mills explained.
Crapo borrowed a device made by another community member to roll the canoe gunwales into gentle curves. This process took weeks. They printed the design elements of the sides almost to scale, used CAD software, taped up cut cardboard stencils as a guide, and used a 10,000-pound hydraulic jack. They pounded, bended, and warped. The eye on the canoe bow alone took one week.
And while experimenting with construction techniques, Mills had to retain an awareness of style. “In formline design, you have to stunt, or stop the negative space, short enough to keep it structurally sound, but also let human beings connect the dots,” he said. “There’s a fine line in there where you stop and let the viewer do the small connections.”
“It made my jaw drop,” said Michele Elfers, a landscape architect and deputy director of Parks and Recreation for CBJ who happened upon Yaadachoon where it was temporarily placed upon completion.
For its permanent landing place, Elfers and Mills decided on a specific location just off the beach, near the site of the historical Tlingit village Dzantik’i Heeni, (roughly translated to “where the flatfish gather”), along downtown Juneau’s coastal Seawalk. There are historical photographs of canoes sitting outside of houses in the vicinity.
Initial installation occurred in late 2021; elements like outdoor lighting will be incorporated in the spring of 2022, if the fundraising effort for the installation is successful.
It matters not if you’re on the right or left; to make progress each side carries the same burden and works in unison with the other.
Let’s keep paddling.
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