Alaska For Anna Brown Ehlers, the Chilkat blanket isn't just
art it's a lifelong passion. She recalled seeing her uncle,
Roy Brown, wear one in a Fourth of July parade when she was 4 years
old. "The movement of the totemic designs and fringe of the blanket
intrigued me at first sight," she said. "I knew then that I wanted
to spend my life making Chilkat blankets."
large five-sided blanket with its dominant yellow, white and black
colors is one of the most identifiable traditional art forms in
Alaska. It's also among the most complex and labor-intensive items.
weavings were made throughout the Pacific Northwest. But the blankets
made by Tlingit Indians from the Chilkat Valley were particularly
esteemed for their workmanship and spectacular designs, coveted
as high-end trade goods by other tribes and, after contact, avidly
collected by museums and wealthy art lovers.
in the 20th century, the ranks of weavers grew thin. The late Jenny
Thlunaut is often listed among the last women who remembered the
for Ehlers, Thlunaut was a close friend with her grandmother. As
a girl Ehlers often watched Thlunaut weaving while her grandmother
made beaded moccasins.
she studied under Thlunaut as well as with Dorica Jackson, wife
of her uncle, famed Tlingit carver Nathan Jackson, who has supplied
her with some of the designs she uses.
the moment I started in the Chilkat technique, it was as if I had
always done it," Ehlers said. "I'm not sure if I am that good a
weaver, but I love the art form."
may not be sure, but others are. Her work can be seen at the Alaska
State Museum in Juneau and other institutions.
2006 she was among the first American artists to receive a $50,000
United States Artists award. She also received a Governor's Arts
Award that year.
year she received a major grant from the Rasmuson Foundation.
notwithstanding, making a living as a Chilkat weaver is a "daunting
task," she noted, enormously time-consuming.
her family she collects yellow cedar bark in the spring and separates
out the inner layer, which is soaked until supple, then split into
paper-thin layers that are split again into "spaghetti-shaped strips."
bark is then hand spun with wool. In the old days that would have
been mountain goat wool.
Ehlers said, "I'm a modern girl. I use commercial 100 percent wool
for the colored design relief."
resulting yarn, or "warp," is hung on a simple cross-beam loom and
woven together using a basic twining technique.
may take four to five months to spin enough warp for a large Chilkat
blanket," she said, "depending on how much help I have."
lot of the help comes from her three children, Marie, Billy and
work the raw materials with me," she said. "Granted it is not their
favorite thing to do, but the family's help... is the reason that
I have accomplished making 18 large Chilkat blankets in the last
also makes tunics, aprons, headdresses and other Chilkat "regalia"
plus beadwork "to refresh my mind."
blankets, however, have a special place in her resume, not only
making them which is rare enough but uniquely expanding
the art form by experimenting with different ideas and materials.
was visiting a bridal kimono shop in Tokyo where she was entranced
by a basket made of pure spun silk. The merchant refused to sell
it to her, but Joe David, a totem carver from Washington state,
who was with her, prevailed upon the store owner. David explained
the kind of work she did and promised, "She will do only good things
with this silk."
non-traditional material is gold. Ehlers said the idea came after
her daughter told her about a dream in which her mother wove a Chilkat-style
face from gold.
could hardly wait for the Permanent Fund dividend to come out that
year," Ehlers said. She spent her whole check on 24 karat gold wire
which was worked into a blanket. Since then incorporating gold into
her pieces has become one of her hallmarks.
blankets are intertwined with family stories. An enormous potlatch
blanket, 7 1/2 feet wide by 6 feel high "the largest one
in the world ever made," she said was presented at a ceremony
in Klukwan honoring her late father in 2007 where it was cut into
pieces and distributed to guests. Daily News columnist Heather Lende,
was in attendance and wrote:
was a long silence as the blanket was taken down and (Ehlers) carefully
sliced it into small pieces that she gave to special people.
beautiful, rare blanket, worth thousands of dollars, was apparently
destroyed to repair a tear in the fabric of the tribe that happened
so long ago most of the folks didn't know the details. Anna's father
had, though, and it was his dying wish that she do this to make
whatever was wrong right again."
special blanket was for her mother, whose grandmother had a fine
blanket that she sold to relatives from another village. The boat
sank on the return trip and the blanket was never recovered.
story was related to us children at night after dinner," Ehlers
said, "as we had no television." Stirred by that tale, she resolved
to make her mom a blanket to replace the one that had left the family.
took me 40 years, but I eventually did make my mother a Chilkat
blanket," Ehlers said. In the blanket she depicts herself and her
late twin, Anita. The two sisters often worked together in their
is mindful of her parents' roots in Klukwan, a village renowned
for superb Tlingit artisanship, in the heart of the Chilkat Valley.
"I'm a Chilkat through and through," she said. "When my husband
started dating me, I informed him that if he wanted to be in my
life, he would have to tolerate my love of Chilkat above all else."
all worked out. Bill Ehlers' income has made it possible for her
to concentrate on her work, she said.
have been married over 30 years," she noted, "and my art still comes
more information, visit: http://www.chilkatweaver.com/