Friday April 14, 2023 | by Andrew Page

CONVERSATION: Exhibition curator explains how a chance meeting at Pilchuck became the catalyst for a wide embrace of glass by Indigenous artists

Through the end of April, Seattle's Traver Gallery is hosting "Native Influence: Tony Jojola’s Life of Impact" a group exhibition of work in glass by Indigenous artists Larry Ahvakana, Marcus Amerman, Ryan! (sic) Feddersen, Dan Friday, Raya Friday, Tony Jojola, Ramson Lomatewama, Ira Lujan, Robert “Spooner” Marcus, and Raven Skyriver. The Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet spoke with guest curator John Drury (who is also a contributing editor to Glass: The UrbanGlass Art Quarterly) about how he identified a 1984 chance encounter at the Pilchuck Glass School between Ahvakana, Singletary, and the late Tony Jojola (1958 - 2022) as a seminal event that would "usher in new creative possibilities to Indigenous artists" and exponentially expand the voices speaking through the material of glass.  

The Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet: Please tell us about the genesis of the show; how did it happen?
John Drury: At the end of 2022, I was sparked by the sudden and unexpected death of my good friend Tony Jojola to push to  recognize and honor the loss of such an important and under-sung figure in Studio Glass. Knowing our mutual friend Preston Singletary was already slated to show at the Traver Gallery in April, I saw a possibility to compile something to acknowledge Tony’s massive contribution to the field. I called Preston to see if he’d consider sharing his month-long slot and some of the exhibition space; and he quite graciously agreed. Gallery director Sarah Traver eagerly jumped right in when approached, to support and accommodate what would need to quickly come together in a much-shorter time than I would usually have to take on such an in-depth curatorial project.

A pair of untitled Tony Jojola works from 1999.

My artist list came together quite naturally then, starting with Larry Ahvakana (our elder here, and a representative the the Inupiaq Indigenous people of Northwest Alaska). Larry, Tony, and Preston had all been at the Pilchuck Glass School during the same session in the mid-1980s; a rare occurrence when three native makers happened to be on campus at once. It made sense to start with these three artists and to then peer forward from this event. I looked next to the program that Tony headed in Taos, for more than a decade. “Spooner” Marcus and Ira Lujan had made careers in glass for themselves afterward. Ira had previously apprenticed with Jojola and later studied with Singletary at Pilchuck. “Spooner” would come on board as a teaching assistant at the facility and would himself discover the freedom of off-hand making, which he explored after some experience in production glass.

After securing a list of five participants, I moved on to the current batch of “movers and shakers” -- those individuals actively pursuing making and exhibiting. In the end, my participants were quite diverse, including individuals as representative the Choctaw, Hopi, Lummi, Tlingit and Pueblo peoples, in addition to the others mentioned.

Three fused glass panels by Larry Ahvakana (2004-2019)

Glass: Sensitivity to the issues of agency and power dynamics has grown considerably in the art world in recent years, including who gets to present Indigenous artists' work and how it's organized. How did you approach these issues as a curator to preserve authentic voices and history?
Drury: My process was largely organized around examining the interconnections of friendship, mentorship, and respect, and each artist's relationship fit generally into at least one of these three categories. Each taught, knew, or benefited from Tony and his career; which was a fairly broad approach with a lot of leeway. Striving for an overview of the genesis of Indigenous participation in Studio Glass, I began by including a work by Tony from each of the five decades of his career.

The earliest example, a work from 1986, was made while Tony was a student of Michael Glancy’s at Pilchuck. Larry Ahvakana’s work -- three fused panels –- span a 15-year period. No artist was asked to conform to any rigid conceptual envelope –- only to represent themselves as they saw fit, and in respect to Tony. Each work was then chosen, based on quality. I was not interested in including simply the newest works by each participating artist. For example, the collaborative works by Preston Singletary and Marcus Amerman are largely from 2010; none then, are less than a decade old and all are meant to gently blend with the adjacent exhibition of Preston’s contemporary works

Glass: What have been some of the highlights of the experience of curating this exhibition for you, personally?
Drury: Particularly poignant was the opportunity to work with Tony’s now-adult children toward this celebratory goal, which was a sort of archeological dig into their father’s past and creative production. I had visited Tony at the Isleta Pueblo, ca. 1992-3, when Domingo and Mia were very young children. During the first week of March 2023, they traveled to New Mexico to claim their father’s belongings and we texted back and forth as boxes and barrels were opened and emptied to reveal a life in glass. They traveled from their homes in Sacramento, California, to attend the exhibition opening, which allowed them to see how revered their father is in the Seattle area and among his peers.

It was endearing then, to see their excitement continue the following day, as Sarah and Bill Traver had arranged a tour of Chihuly’s Boathouse on Lake Union for six of us (including Jocelyn Jojola, Domingo’s wife, who was instrumental to the work of organizing the exhibition). Dale greeted them to express his condolences. It had quite an impact on them to see the concern that such a well-respected master of their father’s chosen medium had for their father.

L to R: Jocelyn Jojola, Mia Jojola, Dale Chihuly and Domingo Jojola. photo: john drury
An enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, from the Okanogan and Arrow Lakes bands, and of mixed European descent, Ryan! Feddersen, was a student of mine and Robbie Miller for a 2008 session at Pilchuck. At the opening night of the exhibition at the Traver Gallery, she shared with me the fact that artist Joe Feddersen, her uncle, had told her when she was young: that to rise above the craft, the artist must employ not the hands alone, but the head, the heart, and the hands.
Works from 2023 by Ryan! Feddersen as installed at the Traver exhibition.
Common to many works of the Indigenous world, is the reverence for nature; Ryan!’s conceptual grounding looks forward and is based in concern for the natural world. Ryan!’s Two Birds Both Dead (2023) is a stark reminder of the price in mismanagement of our natural resources. In Ryan!’s work, I see the next generation of makers conveying the shared concerns of all peoples - a declaration necessarily shared by all races, if we are to survive. Hers is a call to action.

Glass: What do you hope that people coming to this exhibit leave with, how do you hope to change people’s
perceptions and understanding through this exhibition?

Drury: First and foremost, I hope visitors to the exhibition see the professionalism with which the works are made by this group of diverse native peoples. And to take with them the realization, that we as a species, are one, regardless of background. All voices are to be heard, each as relevant to the human experience as the next, and, with support and due respect, might produce magic, the fertile result of opportunity and shared knowledge.

Tony Jojola, Untitled, 1986. Copper and glass. collection: tom mansfield

In reflection of these makers' eager participation in this effort to memorialize, I hope visitors look deeper into who Tony Jojola was as an artist and person. That includes not only all the things he accomplished as an individual artist, but in what he inspired in those who passed through the door of opportunity that he always left ajar.


"Native Influence: Tony Jojola's Life of Impact"
Through April 29, 2023
Curated by John Drury
Traver Gallery
110 Union St #200
t: 206.587.6501

Glass: The UrbanGlass Quarterly, a glossy art magazine published four times a year by UrbanGlass has provided a critical context to the most important artwork being done in the medium of glass for more than 40 years.