The Yukon is a fascinating mix of First Nations and non-First Nations cultures. There are eight different First Nations linguistic groups with 14 tribes/clans in the territory, many with traditions and languages that had almost become lost due to forced integration as recently as only a few decades ago. Thanks to concentrated efforts, these traditions are now being revived and taught to the children, who will, in turn, proudly carry on their heritage.
Jean Taylor is a First Nations artist who celebrates this revival. She is a member of the Dakhl’awedi (Eagle) Clan of the Teslin-Tlingit First Nation and has lived in Teslin, Yukon all her life. Taylor has a passion for painting Tlingit people, the people of her culture, in colorful masks, button blankets, intricately woven hats, moccasins, mukluks and snowshoes. The faces in her paintings, however, are often hidden or vague. “I purposely paint them that way so the viewer won’t be distracted by the identity of the person in the painting,” said Taylor during our interview. “For me, that’s not what it’s about. What I want the viewer to notice is the regalia, not the people.”
I asked the artist how she learned about the regalia of her culture during her youth.
“Ceremony was only a small part of my life growing up,” the artist explained. “Dancing and potlatches were quietly carried on during my childhood years, and I remember the regalia coming out maybe three times – and not everybody had regalia. There were only a few who did, but now, the regalia comes out more often. As a Tlingit person, it is absolutely thrilling for me to see the hats coming back, and to see so many of them! There are more people who own regalia now than 20 to 30 years ago. My paintings are a celebration of this renewal of our culture.”
Is the regalia we see today as it was generations ago, or did some of the traditional styles and symbolic designs get lost over the years, becoming more of an approximation? “There were pieces in my home community that were handed down,” Taylor replied, “because there were also a lot of people still living who knew how the regalia was made.“
What brought Jean Taylor to her art? “I’ve been surrounded by art since birth,” she said. “I was born into a family where my mom was tanning hides, beading and making moccasins along with my aunties and my grandma. I grew up watching my uncles and my great-grandfather make snowshoes.”
“Not one of these people would have identified themselves as an artist,” she continued, “because they were making things that they needed to live and when I think about it, they were artists and they were creating these beautiful items that were also functional. I remember my mom making these fabulous mukluks and moccasins for all of us when we were kids, so that’s what brought me to art – this creating was just something you did – it was all around me. It was part of everyday life. It was survival.”
For Jean Taylor and her family and community, art was, and is, an integral part of life, along with the stories and traditions that will now continue to be passed down to future generations. Taylor’s artwork is a powerful testament to the resilience of her people, and her joyous celebration of her culture will be featured among the group of artists from First Nations and non-First Nations heritage in the Yukon exhibition being planned to tour the U.S. in 2014.
I am currently collaborating with Yukon curator Harreson Tanner on an international project that will bring artwork by contemporary artists from Canada’s Yukon Territory to museums in the northeast United States for an exhibition tour scheduled to begin in 2014.
For information and updates on the exhibition, visit:
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