Learning from our Elders: Art of Place

erin-laughlinBY ERIN LAUGHLIN
Staff Writer, UAS Whalesong

Ed Kunz remembers helping his father carve totem poles for tourists along the streets in Sitka as a boy. Roughly 70 years later he is still carving, today teaching the art as an elder in the Juneau Tlingit community.

State Writer Laureate and UAS Professor Ernestine Hayes organized the Feb. 17 “Art of Place – Learning from our Elders” event in order to spotlight Kunz and Della Cheney, elders in the Juneau community. The event is one in a series meant to strengthen the relationship between the community and the campus.

Kunz spoke on his personal journey and experience carving precious metals, and Cheney shared knowledge of basketry and weaving.

The event began by Kunz describing his family lineage, personal history, and stories from his childhood.

Kunz solely worked with wood, until his 20s, when he switched over to metals under the mentorship of Smith Katzeek. “It was surprising to see how easy it was to switch from one medium to another,” Kunz said.

When Kunz first began making jewelry his customers were usually within his family, but as his skills became more refined more orders started to surge in.

According to Kunz, students who have learned from him are all “directed to develop their own style, they learn there is no single way of doing things.”

Della Cheney took the floor by first singing a traditional Haida song, then sharing her personal ancestry.

Cheney described how her students sometimes act as a vehicle for ancestors to speak to her through the art of weaving.

“My students will tell me something that I have been struggling to see, their eyes are new, their fingers are new and they’ll just say or do something and I’ll go, ‘Do it again, do it again so I can see how you did it” Cheney said. “Once you start teaching you also begin learning.”

Attitude, self-care, preparation, and the approach a weaver must take were the key themes Cheney discussed.

Bringing her presentation to a close, Cheney displayed her Ravenstail robe “Leadership and Change.”  Cheney led the audience through the symbolism and meaning behind the colors, words and patterns of the massive work of art.

The robe was created to celebrate the achievement of her daughter’s Ph.D. in Leadership and Change from Antioch University.

Professor Hayes said UAS students can learn more from Elders by “attending Art of Place events, by joining Wooch.een and attending NRSC events, and best of all, by asking their own Elders to tell them about their lives.”

Almost 40 people attended the Feb. 17 event on the Auke Bay Campus. The elder’s demonstrations were followed by a potluck intended to cultivate a sense of fellowship between presenters and attendees.

The next Art of Place, “Teaching our Children,” will be at 10 a.m on Mar. 31, also concluding with a potluck.

For more information on the Art of Place series contact Professor Ernestine Hayes at ehhayes@alaska.edu.

Pictures of the event can be found on the Whalesong’s Facebook page at facebook.com/uaswhalesong.

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