Glass is the Memory of Light
A conversation with Raven Skyriver and Joe Feddersen
By Almah LaVon Rice
Where does glass come from? From the Phoenicians, ancestors of the alphabet in modern-day Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. Or perhaps the Sumerians, inventors of the cuneiform, were the first fashioners of glass in what is now southern Iraq. It could have been the ancient Egyptians—creators of papyrus, whose daughter is paper. What seems more certain: Naturally occurring glass is the clear-eyed child of the meteorite. One notable example is Libyan desert glass, which formed 29 million years ago when debris from outer space hit and melded with a swath of quartz sand at the Egyptian and Libyan border. The breastplate buried with King Tut even boasts a scarab made of the rare golden glass.
Maybe the creation story of glass can be told by Enaliarctos, or “grandfather seals.” Fossil records suggest that they began swimming in the waters off the western coast of Turtle Island twenty-nine million years ago—arguably at the same time that Libyan desert glass was formed. Tlingit artist Raven Skyriver was born near the same glassy waters, on Lopez Island of the San Juan Islands, Washington State. He is known for the lifelike craftsmanship and dynamism of his glass seals, otters, orcas, walruses, whales, turtles, fish, cephalopods, and other creatures of the sea. Watching Skyriver and his team conjure a sea lion out of base material is like witnessing a feat of primordial magic. “It’s like a form of alchemy,” he says.
The spark of life for one of his sea lions begins in the fiery depths of the crucible. The blowpipe is inserted into the crucible, mimicking a magic wand summoning new worlds. The glass is now molten and pliable, on the precipice of myth. The blowpipe is pulled out, and at its end sits a small sun: an orb of extremely hot, viscous glass.
What follows is a choreography of rolling and rotating, of spinning a planet of glass that grows and grows in girth. You must keep blowing into the blowpipe as you turn it. Step over to the marver and roll the glass on its surface to shape it and modulate its temperature. To make the glass malleable again, repeatedly head to the glory hole, the furnace that reheats the piece while it is in process. Heating up and cooling down over and over again, the glass is restless—so the glass artist must follow suit, always in motion, just like the celestial body twirling on the end of the blowpipe.
During one of these orbits, the glass globe gets sprinkled with a powdery substance. A cylindrical shape takes over, then it’s bluish, mottled. The body of the seal surfaces, darkening under Skyriver’s torch. As he uses tools to carve the sea mammal’s facial features, the artist’s face is also shaped: With his knitted brow, unwavering gaze, and the determined set of his mouth, Skyriver looks like a god of concentration bringing inert matter to life.
Pure presence is the philosopher’s stone in this alchemist’s hot shop. “So much of the joy and the experience of making glass is the process,” the 38-year-old artist explains. “The end product is definitely on my mind the whole time, but the process is just so captivating and fascinating and challenging in a good way, most of the time.” Before long, the sea lion’s hind flippers materialize, and then the fore flippers, its entire body curved like a comma but filling the viewer with question marks. Is this animal made of light? Liquid? This is not glass, surely. After being placed in the annealing oven, where glass migrates to cool safely, and the threat of thermal stress ebbs away, the sea lion will be released into the wilds of the human world: the gallery, the private collection, the art patron’s insatiable gaze.
Skyriver’s orca sculpture now plumbs the high desert blue of Santa Fe, in the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture’s groundbreaking show Clearly Indigenous: Native Visions Reimagined in Glass (on view through June 16, 2022). The exhibition is unique not only because it is the first such survey of Native glass art, but because it features, for the first time for MIAC, artists from outside the American Southwest.
“It’s definitely a different biome [from the Pacific Northwest]. I’ve always felt super connected to the Southwest,” Skyriver says. “We would always go on road trips to the Southwest and Chaco Canyon and check out all the different places out there. … So [the region] definitely holds a dear place in my heart.”
Co-curated by Dr. Letitia Chambers and Cathy Short (Citizen Potawatomi), Clearly Indigenous features twenty-eight other Native artists from around the world in addition to Skyriver. One of them is Joe Feddersen, another glass maestro who hails from Washington State.
Born and still based in Omak, Washington, Feddersen is a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation whose storied career encompasses sculpture, basketry, photography, printmaking, and mixed media. He has also taught and exhibited his work at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. One of his contributions to the show is Charmed, an installation of cut and fused glass charms. These hanging charms, or “icons” as Feddersen also calls them, embody the time-traveling nature of glass—a substance used since time immemorial to reflect the present and to persist for the future.
Invoking the style of ancient petroglyphs, the installation is a matrix of deer and coyote men frolicking in a dense forest of pick-up trucks, planes, high-voltage towers, and radiation warning signs. “It’s the idea that part of our culture takes on other aspects over time and all of these things are part of our life today,” explains Feddersen.
Nearly a decade ago Feddersen was commissioned by the Umpqua Valley Arts Association in Roseburg, Oregon, to, as he says, “make an installation piece that talked about hybrid culture.” He decided that he wanted to illustrate the concept of inhabiting multiple worlds by combining a charm bracelet, petroglyph wall, and wind chime. Form and content tinkle and chime together in Charmed; his choice of medium represents ingenuity and whimsy as well as reflecting place and circumstance. “I made charms out of fused glass because I live in a really rural area and it’s hard to have access to a lot of equipment,” adds Feddersen, who has also exhibited work at Santa Fe’s Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. He continues, “I made this kind of a blanket form so that when the light shines through, it creates these images on the wall, like petroglyphs. The wind chime part comes because it’s like a large blanket and when the air moves through it, it sounds like a chandelier.” The exuberant profusion of charms creates a lattice of starkly beautiful silhouettes on the adjacent wall, making the wall an extension of the artwork. Relying on shadow for “ink,” the wall looks printed with stylized images—invoking Feddersen’s expertise as a printmaker. Such bold, geometric patterning is characteristic of Feddersen’s oeuvre as well as Plateau Native aesthetics evidenced in basketry and other art forms.
Feddersen describes himself as a “generalist;” his primary métier is possibility itself. “I draw from the landscape, current events, regional histories, tribal legacies, personal narratives, and contemporary dialogues,” he writes in an unpublished manuscript shared with the author. He notes that his late mentor Vi (Taqseblu) Hilbert, an Upper Skagit elder who led efforts to revitalize the language and culture of Native people in the Pacific Northwest, always said that he is “really a storyteller.” Feddersen agrees with that assessment. “A lot of times it’s about the stories and about the narrative that holds everything together,” Feddersen says. “I flow pretty easily through glass and printmaking and basket weaving. The iconography blends back and forth.”
This fluid approach has defined his creative career from its very inception. Growing up in the Inland Plateau region of the Columbia Basin, he made things constantly with no thought of calling himself an artist with a capital A. “I had friends who said, ‘I took this one class in college, and I knew I was an artist,’” he recalls. “They know the exact moment. But for me, it was when I was growing up that we always made things, and it was just natural to me.” He even fondly remembers a professor speaking at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, where Feddersen himself taught art for 20 years. The visiting professor, according to Feddersen, said that “the artwork can come from just as you breathe.” Inhale stories, landscapes, recollections, colors, and textures and exhale a robust body of work.
“Working in that kind of intuitive manner” continues to be a navigational constant in his artmaking today. A typical day for Feddersen looks like rising to do firings in the morning. “I’ll pick out what I fired the day before and put new pieces in,” he explains. Art and the daily motions of life are integrated; he resides under the roof of his daily creative practice. He continues, “I love living in the middle of my work. I live alone, so I’m usually doing a lot of things at the same time.”
Making home while meaning-making through art is also true for Skyriver. He just moved back to Lopez Island to a family compound—after some years away on the mainland in Stanwood, Washington—with his wife and 10-year-old son. This homecoming included a crowdfunded home studio and hot shop. The furnace was turned on in May 2021. That same month, Skyriver mused: “I think my ideal daily artistic practice is going to be: Wake up and turn on the furnace and have a cup of coffee while things warm up, and then make stuff during the day, and just have that be part of the routine.”
Skyriver stresses that collaboration is an integral part of his artistic trajectory and process. Along with his wife Kelly O’Dell, an accomplished glass artist in her own right, Skyriver raised almost $125,000 to actualize a “dream glass studio.” But collaboration didn’t begin and end with Kickstarter. Working in tandem with a team of other established artists facilitates “a certain kind of flow,” he says. “[Rather than] hiring a subcontractor and having them do part of the work, it becomes something more. It’s more based in community and camaraderie and sharing experiences and telling stories and stuff like that while we work.” Skyriver likens it to playing in a musical ensemble. In such contexts, “everyone’s knowledge comes together to create something that couldn’t be created by one person.”
Ultimately, though, the lead artist has the final say when it comes to firming up decisions in the studio, Skyriver says. “Whoever’s the gaffer, which is the person sitting at the bench or the lead person, you’re making their work. So they call the shots, and they are responsible for how the piece ends up looking and how big it’s going to be and all those things. Everyone else is assisting that person.” He invites input and appreciates when one of the artists on his team suggests, for example, that a whale sculpture in process might need its proportions adjusted. While he says it is “liberating” to relinquish some control, he admits, “It’s my piece in the end, it’s my call. It’s my fault if it breaks—I don’t blame other people.”
Feddersen also values a communal approach to artmaking. Although his creative career is studded with countless accolades, awards, and fellowships, he highlights “a collaborative book project” as one of his most luminous accomplishments. The book project was Terrain: Plateau Native Art and Poetry, a collection of relief prints and poetry by thirty-four Plateau artists and writers that Feddersen curated. “A lot of times our people leave the reservation to find jobs; they’re taken off into other communities. I wanted to do something that brought people back together, that created this artists’ community,” he says. He is currently working on another project similar to 2014’s Terrain. In collaboration with the Northwest Museum of Art and Culture in Spokane, Washington, Feddersen’s new project amplifies contemporary Plateau artists such as Jaune Quick-To-See Smith and Jim Lavadour.
Artist-to-artist community kindled both Feddersen’s and Skyriver’s relationship to glass art. While Feddersen took a glass casting class during his tenure securing an MFA at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, his sustained engagement with glass was sparked when he was asked to be part of a major art show almost two decades ago.
Continuum 12 Artists: Joe Feddersen was part of a shifting collection of twelve artists creating work in conversation with the legacy of Indigenous twentieth-century art giants George Morrison and Allan Houser, respectively. Continuum, which ran from 2003 to 2005, was an exhibition of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian at the George Gustav Heye Center, New York, curated by Truman Lowe; it was part of the ushering in of NMAI’s opening on the Mall in Washington, DC.
“I made this rather large print—it’s about 10 feet by 60 feet across. I was working on these really small baskets that were maybe 5 inches high and about 3 or 4 inches across,” he recalls. “I wanted to show them together, but the baskets were so small that they would just be lost in the exhibit.” So Feddersen approached his friend and internationally renowned Seattle glass artist Cappy Thompson for guidance. Thompson introduced him to glass artist Preston Singletary (Tlingit), and the rest was art history in the making. Feddersen says, “Preston and I worked together on making a suite of glass vessels that were remakes of the handmade baskets. So they could handle the space. The seductiveness of the glass and the way it collects light worked well.”
Skyriver would eventually collaborate with Singletary as well—but it all began when he was 16 and met his mentor Lark Dalton while attending an alternative high school program. Dalton introduced him to glass blowing equipment and trained him in the traditional Venetian technique. Skyriver would go on to sell his sailboat to finance a glassblowing course in Venice, city of gondolas. There he learned from the famed eleventh-generation glassworker Davide Salvadore, whose lineage includes glass artmaking for a Piedmontese princess in 1721. Other career coups for Skyriver include teaching and/or demonstrating in Japan, Denmark, Norway, Turkey, and the Czech Republic. He has held residencies at noted venues such as the Tacoma International Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington, and the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York.
When Feddersen turns 70 in 2023, Spokane’s Northwest Museum of Art and Culture will host a retrospective of his work. He has already been the subject of Vital Signs, a major retrospective exhibition and monograph jointly organized by Froelick Gallery in Portland, Oregon, and the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. For now, he is ready to start an endeavor that had been deferred for a year due to COVID-19: a residency that is a collaboration between Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture and the aforementioned Museum of Glass in Tacoma. He is also looking forward to exhibiting in the next invitational at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC.
Where is glass going? Wherever these boundary-shattering artists choose to take it. It’s the protean nature of glass that beguiles Skyriver, who is fascinated by its “plasticity and its ability to mimic so many things, textures, and light.” He further notes, “You can have something that… will drip like honey off the end of the pipe. And then in less than two minutes it’s rock hard and breakable if you drop it. When it’s super-hot it has an incandescence and it glows and creates its own light.”
The future is for forging, and Raven Skyriver and Joe Feddersen are pellucid examples of that. “I realized that I didn’t want to mimic the work of my elders or reenact histories,” Feddersen writes. “In my conversations with Colville elder Elaine Timintwa, we often talk of the petroglyphs near Brewster, Washington. She told me that the youth, while questing, would go to the rock wall, study the petroglyphs and add to them. They would extend history—learning the past and continuing the story to the present. I think of my work in this way—it is grounded in tradition and carries forward to the present.”
Former resident of New Mexico Almah LaVon Rice is a Pittsburgh-based writer at work on her first book. You can find more of her writing at AlmahLaVonRice.com.