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Raven Steals the Sun

July 12, 2015

 

This new glass piece titled "Raven With a Berry" makes me very happy for several reasons. First, it blends some of my favorite subjects: glass and birds. Second, it features a raven, a creature that shares my environment here in Alaska. Third, it touches on an ancient Tlingit legend about how Raven stole the sun.

 

The Tlingit Indians of Southeastern Alaska have numerous stories about the origins of the world, themselves, and the roles animals play in all things spiritual. Similar to the Coyote tales told by Native American tribes in the Southwest (where I lived before Alaska), these stories are told to children for fun, as cautionary tales, and as instruction about correct living, honoring ancestors, etc. The story of how Raven stole the Sun, Moon, and Stars from an old man who kept them locked in a cedar chest is one of the most popular.

 

As a result, the image of Raven grasping a small round object in its mouth is very popular, both among Tlingit artists and other creative people who are influenced by Alaska native art (like myself). I refer in my panel to a bird holding a berry, because right now it's berry-picking season in Alaska, and I have been enjoying them whenever I get a chance to go picking. However, it also resembles salmon roe, a favorite treat for many of the creatures who live here.

 

The illustrious glass artist Preston Singletary (another of my inspirations, though his way of working with glass is nothing like my own) is Tlingit, and has portrayed Raven in many of his own works. I'm posting this example of his work with credit: Raven Steals the Sun, from the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

 

This brings up an interesting thought: what is stealing, and how is it defined? Raven may have thought he was liberating essential elements of life for all earthly beings when he decided to "steal" the sun, moon, and stars from the old shaman. Maybe he was just motivated by his own selfish desire to possess the beautiful, sparkly celestial bodies. I don't believe Raven's motivation was the focus of the myth in any case. Is an artist "stealing" when he/she draws upon an existing motif, either from their own or another's culture? When is an idea truly original?

 

I have no answers, though I ponder things like this while I'm sifting frit and mixing ingredients. It's all part of the creative process--trying to figure out what one piece of work means in the larger scheme of art and life. I can't unravel this mystery, which is much bigger than me. I can only scale it down to my own art, and what this particular piece means to me personally. As I said, this is Raven holding a berry. And it makes me happy to share berry-picking season with him.

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