Dear Artist,

Here in Ketchikan, Alaska, the creek is thick with spawning Pinks, having leapt waterfalls and manmade ladders to now shuffle against the current and shimmy at the stream’s shallowest edges. They’re like an elegant, undulating carpet, building their redds in the riffles (shallow nests). Local kids wade in and scoop them up in their arms for fun — if the bears haven’t got there first. Scientists believe the salmon use magnetic fields and their sense of smell to return to the very beds they were born in. If they manage to make it, after spawning an inborn senescence kicks in, softening their bodies and killing them there in the streambed — the whole thing preprogrammed in a kind of perfect, heroic arc.


​Tlingit, Sitka, Alaska, 1904

The town of Ketchikan encircles these riches like a chorus — the original summer fishing camp for the Tlingit people. Now altogether a sleepy trawler port, bustling frontier and tourist hotspot, Ketchikan remains pale under a drifting sky from the nearby Tongass National Forest and its natural monument, the Misty Fjords. Upstream, between spruce and hemlock thickets, a collection of thirty-three 19th Century totem poles lay protected in a climate-controlled museum. Silent and silvery, they rest on their sides, rescued at the end of their hundred-year lifespan from now abandoned Tlingit and Haida village sites nearby.

In their new role, the totems and the graphic power of their formlines endure. Circles, ovoids, U-forms and S-forms reveal bears, ravens, eagles, orcas, humans and the mythological Thunderbird and Sisiutl — the unveiling of their mysteries dependent on inquiry and oral history. Even at rest, the poles extend their invitation. In the afterlife, art joins another cycle.


Tlingit Ceremonial Robe
goat wool, plant fiber
Metropolitan Museum



PS: “Formline is the primary design element on which Northwest Coast art depends, and by the turn of the 20th century, its use spread to the southern regions as well. It is the positive delineating force of the painting, relief and engraving. Formlines are continuous, flowing, curvilinear lines that turn, swell and diminish in a prescribed manner. They are used for figure outlines, internal design elements and in abstract compositions.” (Bill Holm in his 1965 book Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form)

“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” (Aristotle)


“Red Salmon”
painting by Clarissa Rizal
contemporary Tlingit artist

Esoterica: The Tlingits are matrilineal, with decent and inheritance passed through the mother’s line and with art incorporated into almost every area of life. Kinship moieties — the Raven and the Eagle — are divided into clans, which are then subdivided into house groups. Each group has a heraldic crest displayed on totem poles, house posts, potlatch regalia, weavings, jewellry, feast dishes and ceremonial blankets. “This is not a costume,” a young Raven told me. “Think of it as a tuxedo.” I nodded as she pulled it over my head, the weight resting on my shoulders. Mother of pearl buttons were twinkling along its edges, which swept the floor as I swayed in a circle dance. The blankets are passed as treasures to family members only, though an exception can be made for someone a Tlingit holds in trust. This trusted person becomes responsible for its care, without ever claiming ownership.



  1. Melodie Herbert on

    Thank you so much for teaching me about these aspects of the art of the Tlingit. Marvelous to learn about.

      • Merri McElderry on

        As usual my beauty gift of the day , the message on your website! Thanks. I ,too apprecaite the quotes and the information on the Tinglits. I worked many years with the MInnesota Chippewa ( Ojibwe) and we did much beadwork, moccasin making, learning the culture as I taught school for the k-12 in the Ely m Minnesota schools. The learning of that culture saved me in a time of great need in my life. Thank you for the expanded view here and your marvelous ability as a wordsmith as well as artist—–Merri

    • Sara, we respect your family ,your wonderful father who loved to share the excitement of making art ,sharing his Lifelong learning! Such a privilege to learn from him and now you carry it on for us. Deepest gratitude for this!
      Synchronicity…I am heading over to Vancouver Island for some painting time in the forest by the shore. A young companion is working to save the native languages of the West Coast. The story of the salmon always touches my heart . Our
      beautiful planet and this beautiful coast of the Pacific inspires us.
      Pat Ford, Ocean Park,BC

    • This posting is especially appropriate for me because we are in Alaska visiting this state for the first time. We’ve seen the art here as well as in British Columbia and Washington State. Thank you!

  2. Like another reply, we are in AK for the first time, currently on Kodiak Island. Have had an opportunity to learn about the Tuliiq people and their language and culture. Thank you for sharing your observations in such a lyric way. This is an amazing place.

  3. “Scientists believe the salmon use magnetic fields and their sense of smell to return to the very beds they were born in. If they manage to make it, after spawning an inborn senescence kicks in, softening their bodies and killing them there in the streambed — the whole thing preprogrammed in a kind of perfect, heroic arc.” I did not know this; thank you for sharing this knowledge with me. I so appreciate all your email letters, the quotes, and the pictures. They opened my eyes to the treasures of life. With deep gratitude,

  4. Sara, I saved this piece until today, and savored it with coffee this morning. Char Cruze, my late calligraphy teacher, taught us about the Pacific Northwest symbols and design techniques, but you went far beyond by putting the art in the context of the cultures. Thank you!

  5. Yesterday found me standing in line waiting to board the continuation of my flight from Juneau to Houston and reading your post. I’m sure I let out a vocal “YES”…as visual memories flooded back via your prescient words that journaled my Alaska Inside Passage adventure. Thank you seems barely adequate in acknowledging such a powerful synchronicity. Your descriptive writing put a life-long stamp in my head/heart.

    • Virginia Urani on

      Sara, Thank you so very much for walking in your father’s footsteps … your/his letters mean so very much to so many.

      Loved this one. I was in Ketchikan three years ago on a cruise with my family. I awakened in the morning and drew quick sketches of Ketcikan looking out the window of my room. The next day we sailed through Tracy Arm Fjiord. I ran all over that ship looking for a place to sit by the window and wound up on the top deck, outside, huddled under a ledge and painted in watercolor as quickly as possible … boat moving, mist falling, and clouds changing. It was the happiest time of my trip. My “aha moment” was when I mixed my colors to begin painting …
      grey, blue-green, black and the white of the paper. I realized that those were the colors I saw
      most often in artwork, etc for Alaska. Now, I understood why … that you see! I want to return to this almost pure land and sea.

      • I taught in Alaska for many years and the Social Studies cirriculum included a lot of information about the various native groups. I don’t think they do that anymore but I saw it as a way to help the children retain their culture and pride. It presented the Tlingit art and the kids really enjoyed finding the various animals represented using the forms you spoke of. I am reminded of a quote from somewhere that says in the end, all we know of a culture is their artwork. It is what remains. We do important work. Thank you for the letters. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy them. Naomi

  6. Sara, Thank you for this great informational letter! I hope to visit Alaska one day, and may see this amazing art and fascinating tribe ‘up close and personal’. You must’ve felt so honored to wear the precious blanket that has survived so many generations. Thank you for providing such colorful descriptions and emotions in your commentary!

  7. Sara, I wanted to share with you that I forwarded this article to a friend, who actually lives in Alaska. Although he’d heard of the elements you mentioned in your letter, he said he’d never heard them expressed so eloquently. It so happens his cousin is the mayor of Ketchican, and he is forwarding your words to him!

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