Every few generations there comes along an artist so special that the rest of the art world takes notice, recognizing at once the transformative power of the work and the artist’s importance as a game-changer and influencer.
Tlingit sculptor Preston Singletary is such an artist. Now mid-career, Singletary has made his mark in several important ways with his groundbreaking creations in glass, a medium he prizes for both its strength and its fragility. He was the first artist to render Native images and symbolism in blown glass, pioneering a new way of viewing Native culture as well as a new approach to disseminating cultural information. He sees it as a way of preserving the ancient arts, since glass is not subject to decomposition or decay.
“My motivation is to bring more awareness to my own culture through glass as a nontraditional but important material,” Singletary says. “I like to keep the old symbols alive through this new medium. Traditional materials are increasingly rare, so more contemporary artists are open to trying new ones, and it’s interesting to see how ancient symbolism can carry over into a new age. Glass is a more permanent medium that can ensure that these pieces endure. These objects have a life of their own and will potentially change hands over time, perhaps inspiring the next generation.”
Singletary’s luminous creations provide a contemporary take on his culture’s ancient symbols, and the sheer beauty of his work and the ingenuity it entails have cemented his spot in the pantheon of Native innovators alongside such luminaries as Hopi-Tewa potter Nampeyo, Apache sculptor Allan Houser, and Pueblo potter Maria Martinez.
Singletary has evolved his role as an ambassador of contemporary glass art generally and Native glass art in particular through his many collaborations with indigenous artists, from highly acclaimed Pueblo potters in New Mexico to Maori, Native Hawaiian, and Australian Aboriginal artists. These collaborations meld different cultures, symbols, materials, and techniques to produce stunning works that further Singletary’s goal of sharing the beauty of glass art and extending its reach.
His initial collaborative undertaking was with Santa Clara potter and sculptor Tammy Garcia, an innovator herself who took to the new medium with delight. Together they produced several sellout shows of stunning originality that drew praise and attention from collectors. More recently, he teamed up for a second time with another leading Santa Clara potter, Jody Naranjo, whose joyful and whimsical style of carving blended with Singletary’s classic and contemporary vessels to take both artists’ work to a new level. “Preston is an exceptional teacher,” says Naranjo. “He lets your own artistry come through in the glass, and he’s very patient. It was exciting to work with so many colors, and the whole process made me look at the pottery differently. I appreciate it even more now.”
Another recent collaboration has paired him with Kewa ceramicist Harlan Reano. This new collection marks the second such project for the two, and both men value this opportunity to embrace new ways to express their artistry. “These collaborations are always an exchange,” Singletary explains. “I learn how other people interpret their own cultures, which gives me a broader indigenous perspective. Their stories and symbolism take me out of my comfort zone and push my skills and cultural understanding. There’s a camaraderie and joy in collaboration—it’s a journey.”
As his artistic vision expands and the accolades pile up, Singletary’s solo glasswork also continues to evolve in exciting new directions. His newest endeavor is a series of lead-crystal totem poles for which he carves wooden models of the sculpture in order to create a mold in which the lost wax process can be applied, adding glass to the wax-lined mold and letting it melt into the form. Once fired, the melted wax creates the sculpture’s negative space. “It’s the best method for emulating wooden totem poles,” Singletary notes. Some of his monumental castings stand as high as eight feet tall, and the luminosity of the glass gives these traditional forms an ethereal glow, as if infused with spirit from a divine source. He brings his work to the Czech Republic to cast it because of that country’s history as an important center for glass art and the talent of its glass artisans.
His most recent museum exhibition of his totem poles and blown-glass creations, “Raven and the Box of Daylight,” is his second major solo show for the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington, and, like his earlier exhibition there, it will travel to other venues, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. “This is next-level stuff,” Singletary says, “with a multimedia show of video projections and soundscapes that transport the narratives.” Each sculpture in the exhibition is associated with the story of the raven.
Innovator, ambassador, collaborator, teacher, and consummate artist, Singletary continues to chart new territory and push the limits of his medium and his artistry. “I feel a real sense of purpose in my work,” he says. “For me, this is a calling.”