The Whole Body Carves
Dancers become birds, become predators, become fish, become legendary characters. Drums pound. Voices rise and pulse. Knees bend and shoulders swoop so that blankets come alive. Arms fly out to strike angled postures — here a poised spear, there a wingtip, flight feathers angling in complicated winds.
The body: It is always the first site of transformation. It is where varying truths coincide. That is why Alison Bremner (née Marks) works with blades, wood and paint. She carves because of a dance.
The seeds were planted early. Bremner remembers looking at totem poles when she was so little she still wanted to be “a ballerina-astronaut-president all in one.” A member of the K’inéixh Khwáan clan from Yakutat, Bremner has lived alongside Northwest Coast formline art since birth.
The drive to learn and apply the tradition to her own projects, though, comes from seeing Git-Hoan, a Tsimshian dance group from Kingston, Washington. They performed onstage at Juneau’s 2010 Celebration.
“I saw that group dancing the big masks,” Bremner recalls. “The art was an ‘aha’ moment for me.” She rode that new inspiration straight to the mall, where she bought a canvas and some paints. With these, Bremner made her first formline design.
A decade later, Bremner honors that first painting with fondness and pride. But she laughs about the piece as well. It lacks everything she has learned since about the strictures of formline tradition.
Bremner learned all those techniques — the careful balances of line and curve, of thickness and space, the precise transposition of two-dimensional formline to three-dimensional carving — from two of the dancers whose masks initially compelled her to buy that first canvas. Those dancers are father and son, David A. Boxley and David R. Boxley.
Bremner first approached David R. Boxley (son) to learn formline. Later she reached out to David A. Boxley (father) for mentorship in carving her first totem pole — a “bucket list” project, she calls it — to depict her grandfather, a thermos of coffee and a raven.
Carving a pole was not easy. Bremner is a woman. She had to negotiate and leverage her own body’s strengths and limitations in ways new to her — and to her teacher. “Things David could do with one arm, I had to use my whole body,” she says. She reached utter exhaustion over and over.
“The physicality of it!” she exclaims. “It just made me appreciate the male carvers and the monumental works even more. Because I knew it was going to be hard, I just didn’t quite know how hard the physical work was going to be.”
For this and other reasons, carving has at times been construed as a man-specific practice in Tlingit culture. But Bremner says this gendering of the form isn’t altogether accurate. She finds evidence of Tlingit women carvers. She has seen old museum pieces attributed to women. This is important. And so, she wants people to know: Women carved.
Scholars and culture bearers agree that Bremner is the first Tlingit woman to carve and raise a pole. Independent curator and University of Washington assistant professor Miranda Belarde-Lewis researched the question while writing captions for Bremner’s 2017 solo exhibit at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. “Through a network of us,” says Belarde-Lewis, “we determined that she is the first.”
For Bremner, the emphasis lies elsewhere. She made the pole to honor and remember her grandfather and to give a gift to the community of Yakutat. What’s important to Bremner is how the pole combines classic tradition, cultural/ancestral weight and, with the coffee thermos, levity.
“I think [ancestral] weight is always an undercurrent in my work, but it’s definitely not always the first thing you see,” Bremner reflects. “I like to use humor as a gateway to bring people in, people who maybe haven’t experienced Tlingit culture. I really like the moment where the viewer gets the humor in the work and I feel like the laughter is a bridge.”
That bridge-building drives Bremner’s current work toward a solo exhibition that will open at the Alaska State Museum sometime in a couple years. The show, “It’s Raining Men,” will reinterpret mass-produced sexualized images of the male form. And it will use traditional Tlingit formline to do so.
Bremner wants to respond to a pattern emerging in contemporary Northwest Coast art. “There are many Northwest Coast artists who are creating these really sexualized images of women. More than you would find in traditional times.” And more widely, as Bremner points out, “the male gaze is pretty inescapable — in historical art, and also mainstream society, in ads, you know, every which way.”
Bremner’s exhibit aims partly to expose and reflect on this representational trend and partly to balance it. The exhibit will focus on images of men who have knowingly objectified themselves (Bremner offers Val Kilmer in Top Gun’s volleyball scene as one example) — that way, the men she portrays “are in on the joke,” says Bremner, “so it’s not just blasting the gaze back on them.”
Of course, the scope of the exhibit far exceeds joking. It will comment on sex and gender representation, and it will also demonstrate the ongoing relevance of an ancient aesthetic tradition, formline, to today’s ways of seeing, questioning and understanding the world. “It’ll be recognizable, and it’ll be funny,” Bremner says.
“But it’ll also have that underlying tone of seriousness. As most of my work does.”