Clarissa Hudson was 29 years old when she met the grand master of Alaskan Chilkat weaving, Jennie Thlunaut, at a weaving workshop. Thlunaut was 95 years old and the last of the Chilkat weavers. After a six-week apprenticeship, and two complete weavings, Thlunaut exclaimed, “You are it! You’re the one. My work is finished. Now I can go home to my Momma and my Aunties and my Papa.” The young Hudson did not understand what the old woman meant. Two months later, Jennie Thlunaut died.
Sitting on her front porch in Pagosa Springs, Colo., Hudson, who just turned 50, tells the story with wild hand gestures. Her animated, umber eyes look off into the distance as if the memory is a movie she is watching somewhere on a screen I cannot see. She smiles and then looks back at me, and I am drawn into the inner soul of this creative and spiritual woman. Her hair, long and the color of eggplant, flows around her square face with its high forehead and broad, flat nose. It is the kind of hair you want to touch, with just a few silver strands interspersed throughout the thick mane.
Hudson, a member of the Tlingit Tribe, was born in Juneau, Alaska, just before the territory became the 49th state. Part Native Alaskan and part Filipino, Japanese and Chinese, she is a master Chilkat weaver who specializes in designing and creating woven ceremonial robes and button blankets.
“I create using a traditional method,” Hudson said. “But I don’t replicate old pieces. I design my own work based on personal experiences, visions, dreams, statements, things happening in the now.”
Her award-winning “Copper Woman,” a five-piece dance regalia outfit, in the collection of the Anchorage Museum, took twelve years to finish. The headdress is inspired by Jamaican dreadlocks; the capelet is fashioned after a Seminole woman’s cape and sewn with patchwork; the dance apron has the look of a long Hawaiian grass skirt; and the robe combines Chilkat and Raven’s Tail weaving elements.
For Hudson, weaving, painting and making robes and blankets are a form of ceremony and meditation–her religion, her tradition and her connection to things past and things yet to come. And just as Hudson was mentored, she mentors other artists, learning from their traditions, weaving them into the warp and weft of her own history and experience.
Recently, Hudson was invited to Kaohsiung, Taiwan with Shaun Peterson from Tacoma, Wash. and Shgen George from Angoon, Alaska, to participate in “Raven, Hundred-Pace Viper and the Ocean,” a trans-Pacific collaboration in native arts as part of the Kaohsiung International Austronesian Festival. The raven represents the native people of the northwest coast of North America, and the hundred-pace viper represents the aboriginal people of Taiwan. Hudson, Peterson and George, together with six aboriginal Taiwanese artists, created outdoor sculptures from materials found in Taiwan. The only things Hudson brought with her were some mother-of-pearl buttons that she uses on her button blankets.
During the first week in Taiwan, Hudson and the northwest coast artists spent time getting to know the aboriginal culture of Taiwan. They visited the villages, listened to their songs, watched their dances. They met with artists, like Sakolie, a metalsmith who also owned a café.
“He said to me that it is very important for artists and human beings to have cafés, to sit down, relax and have a meal, to gossip and be together. It is very important for the spirit to have cafés.”
Hudson described Sakolie’s café as an open-air structure made from tree trunks and driftwood and stone. No windows, just the natural material and a fiberglass roof. She spoke longingly, as if the Asian winds were blowing through her hair and she was sharing a cup of tea with her Taiwanese cousin in his café.
During the second week in Taiwan, Hudson worked on her sculpture. She built a totem pole from bamboo. Hudson had never before worked with bamboo, but in five days she managed to create a 12-foot-tall totem with the help of her husband and collaborator, Bill. They used bamboo to create the wings and beak of a raven and a curtain of bamboo formed a flowing robe, like a wave. The bamboo reminded her of a warp and so she took rope and red cloth and began to weave it like a Chilkat robe. Using the red cloth, she wove a snake facing the beak of the raven.
She called the piece, “Thinking the Sky, Thinking the Water.”
Yet, with all her awards and experience, Hudson confesses her own naïveté. “I recently realized that some artists are wannabees,” Hudson said. “I thought all artists were like me, that they made art because they have to do it or they would not be sane. I thought they all used art as a way of coping with this reality, to rise above the mundane into a space not so heavy.”
I asked Hudson to explain. She said that through the process of making art, unresolved issues are resolved. By solving the issues, they are not passed on to the next generation.
“History is preserved and debts are paid,” Hudson said.
For more information on Clarissa Hudson, visit her website at http://www.clarissahudson.com.
Leanne Goebel is the founding editor of Arts Perspective and a freelance arts journalist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.