Tlingit Art of Copper Chasing and Repoussé with Mentor Fellow Nicholas Galanin

The art of copper chasing and repoussé – designs hammered into relief, also known as embossing – has been used by several different indigenous groups in Alaska for generations. Hammering copper was a common practice amongst southeastern Alaska Natives, which predates European contact.1 Traditionally copper was shaped into animal and human figures and is still used in many utilitarian and ceremonial objects such as knives, spoons, rattles and masks. The work of Nicholas Galanin, 2017 NACF Mentor Artist Fellow, and his apprentice Samuel P. Sheakley, Sr. is a product of this Native tradition.

NACF Director of National Artist Fellowships, Reuben Roqueñi, recently visited Galanin who was teaching a chasing and repoussé class at the University of Alaska Southeast. During the visit, Galanin and his students were in the process of hammering copper to create a mask using forms common to Tlingit culture. Galanin and his apprentice Sheakley started working with an 1/8” copper sheet cut to about 6” x 8”. Despite the relative flexibility of copper as a metal, a 1/8” sheet is difficult to manipulate and shape. The shaping process primarily involves hammering the copper sheet using various sizes of small metal hammers and punches, raising and pushing back areas of the sheet gradually to form a bas-relief sculpture.

In addition to the class visit, Roqueñi spent the afternoon with Galanin and Sheakley while they worked on a public art commission to carve Yanyeidí Kootéeyaa, a 40-foot Wolf totem pole, for Savikko Park on Douglas Island. Created as part of the “A Time for Healing” project, the totem pole was designed to memorialize the deliberate burning of Akáx Yaa Andagán, the Douglas Indian village, in 1962. The pole was raised on June 6, 2018 in recognition of Alaska Native history.

Galanin recently completed his NACF Mentor Artist Fellowship year in June 2018. The NACF Mentor Artist Fellowship provides artists with resources to train an apprentice and puts them on a trajectory of recognition in the arts field through exhibitions, community engagement, and education through mentorship. Galanin participated in multiple events related to his joint mentorship project impacting hundreds of people in Alaska throughout the year. In addition to completing their joint art project, Galanin was also able to complete six new works during his mentorship year and Sheakley won Best of Metal Category in the Sealaska Native Art competition for his pendant Ku.éex’ Spirit. Once an apprentice himself under master carvers, Dave Galanin (father) and Will Burkhart (uncle), Nicholas Galanin continues to uphold a level of artistry that honors a continuum of ancestral knowledge and Native arts.

H. Kory Cooper (2011) The life (lives) and times of native copper in Northwest North America, World Archaeology, 43:2, p. 252-270.