2020 Distinguished Artist Award
“I know two things,” says Tlingit master carver Wayne Price. “I know about wood. And I know about recovery.”
Wayne Price was born in 1957 in Juneau. His family lineage in Southeast Alaska extends into time immemorial. By way of a traditional introduction, his Tlingit name is Aayaank’i. He belongs to Tóos’ Hít of the Wooshkeetaan clan of Kake. From his mother, that is the Eagle House, Shark Clan. He is a child of Xíxch’i Hít of the Gaanaxteidí clan in Klukwan. From his father, that is Raven House, Frog Clan. His knowledge of wood began with watching his father carve. He grew up in Haines, where he began his own work with wood in his teens.
“The connection we have with the cedar trees cannot be measured,” Price explains. As a young man, he learned to make his own tools, carving adze handles from the elbow branches of trees, the way his ancestors did. “When we learned how to use an adze, that’s when we came out of the cave,” he explains. “We were able to take the trees down and they became our clan houses, our totem poles, our dugout canoes. It’s the backbone of our whole culture.”
Price apprenticed with several master carvers, including Leo Jacobs, Ed Kasko and John Hagen, but he also learned from the ancestors by studying their work. One of his most important teachers was Kadjisdu.axtc, a master of Northwest Coast art who worked more than 200 years ago. Price grew to appreciate his genius when he duplicated the Chief Shakes House posts carved by Kadjisdu.axtc in Wrangell. “Even with our modern tools, it’s very hard to match what was done a long time ago,” he explains.
Price has carved 38 totem poles, including historic duplicates and his own designs. His works are esteemed by experts for mastery of form and technique as well as their ability to evoke deep feelings of organic presence and quality. At the biannual Sealaska Heritage Institute juried art exhibit in Juneau, he has collected many honors. In a single year, he won every first place award in the prestigious formline and carving categories along with best of show.
Price was one of the first modern artists to master the carving of traditional oceangoing canoes. “All the elders that knew about dugouts were gone by the time I expressed an interest,” he says. He studied examples in museums and made models before carving his first dugout in 1982. He has carved 12 dugouts. Seven currently are used on the water for culture and wellness activities and are recognized as living art.
In the course of acquiring the knowledge embodied in the masterworks of previous generations, Price discovered the restorative power of art itself. In 2003, as he stepped into the world of sobriety, he had a vision in a sweat lodge for using his art and talent to help himself and others heal from addictions and traumas. Since that time, Price has become known for monumental carving projects that focus on recovery. He maintains a sober lifestyle and requires sobriety from those who join him on dugout canoe journeys. His healing projects include totem poles that acknowledge and address the impacts of substance abuse, domestic violence and residential boarding schools. The art carries hope for wellness.
That’s the work that led to creation of North Tide Canoe Kwan, which Price describes as a “canoe family” dedicated to healing community and educating youth through carving and using traditional canoes and paddles. They have paddled healing dugouts from Haines to Juneau, Hoonah to Glacier Bay, and have used canoes for culture activities in many southeast Alaska communities.
In 2019, Price was named associate professor of Northwest Coast Art at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, where he teaches all levels of carving and design. Asked for his thoughts on teaching the next generation of Northwest Coast artists, Price observes, “there will always be change, but it is important to maintain standards. The basics of what makes formline great should not change. I teach my students that even if they plan to work in a contemporary style, they should learn the basics of what made the art great in the first place.”
Artwork by Wayne Price
This art was purchased through the Alaska Art Fund managed by Museums Alaska.