Preston Singletary strolled along a river of glass running through his exhibition at the Chrysler Museum of Art.
With a touch of imagination, the river’s light and dark shades of blue flowed smoothly. Projected stars glittered on the walls, and recorded voices of Native American storytellers, at low volume, wove yarns.
A faraway wolf howled. A white raven squawked.
“It’s come together well,” Singletary said.
The 60-year-old master glassblower wore a necklace with a glass grizzly bear claw, an emblem of his Native American ancestry, while inspecting his show, “Preston Singletary: Raven and the Box of Daylight.” It opened this month after its time at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
His style blends classic European glassblowing techniques with images inspired by his heritage of the Tlingit tribe of the Pacific Northwest.
His art has been featured at the British Museum in London, the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, the Museum of Art and Design in New York, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, among others.
It took Singletary and a team of artists and fabricators at his Seattle studio 10 years to morph glass into these human figures, animals and artifacts to tell a narrative.
The story is the Tlingit creation story of how Raven, an ancestral huckster hero, stole the sun and brought light into the world.
Each room of the exhibition is a chapter of the story, a story that goes a little something like this:
Once at the beginning of time, when the world was dark, an albino bird, Raven, was flying along what’s now the Nass River in British Columbia and met a fisherman. The fisherman told of a wealthy old man who lived with his daughter in a Clan House where he stored many treasures, including beautiful boxes containing the world’s light.
At the Chrysler, the exhibition opens with a solid glass totem pole about 3 feet tall. It bears carvings of the old man, his daughter, Raven, and the box of daylight. On a block of wood above the totem pole, a raven of white glass is perched. Traditional Pacific Northwest Native designs — ovoids, trigons and U-shapes — are carved into its chest.
The albino animal signifies a supernatural entity, and so in the beginning of time, the Tlingit say, Raven had white feathers.
“That’s the nature of a totem pole. It’s made to tell a story,” Singletary said, looking over his work. “It’s not necessarily just a decorative object. By tradition, it’s supposed to tell a story.”
In the next gallery, the lights are dim. Starlight is projected onto thin curtains hanging from the ceiling and the stream of blue glass, representing the Nass River, snakes below a glass canoe. Glass silver coho salmon leap with hooked noses out of the water, and the sounds of a river immerse viewers into the scene. The boat looks like wood carved with the face and fins of a killer whale.
Making that canoe, and applying layers of handmade glass to give the illusion of its carved killer whale, took Singletary nine months. Each layer had to cool to room temperature before he could add the next detail.
The next room narrates Raven’s arrival at the house of the old man and his daughter.
The old man refuses to allow the bird indoors, so Raven devises a plan.
The bird morphs into a hemlock needle and floats down the river to where the girl goes every day to drink. One day she drinks and, not noticing the hemlock needle, swallows it. In her belly, Raven grows into a human baby.
Singletary worked with video artist Juniper Shuey to create “Raven Birth,” a glowing indigo statue about 2 feet tall, topped by the face of a boy with a bird beak.
The boy grows up with the family.
Singletary made a large yellow glass panel to symbolize the interior of the Clan House and created glass house posts, shaped to resemble unworn tunics, signifying disembodied ancestral spirits.
The old man didn’t know that his grandson was Raven and doted on him, giving him gifts and showing him his treasures. In Singletary’s work, three lighted magical boxes sit glowing at the back of the house. One contains the stars, another the moon; the third stores the sun. Raven steals each one.
Only after releasing the sun does Raven transform back into a bird. Enraged, the old man grabs him and tries burning the trickster over a fire.
“And the smoke turns Raven into a black bird,” Singletary said. Then “Raven eventually gets away, and he flies through the smoke hole, and he breaks daylight on the world.”
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Colin Warren-Hicks, 919-818-8139, firstname.lastname@example.org
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Through July 2.
Where: Chrysler Museum of Art, One Memorial Place, Norfolk