Northwest Folkife

Faces of Northwest Folklife: Preston Singletary

Preston Singletary | Photo by Julien Cammeil

Glass has been a form of throughline connection for Preston Singletary. What once started as a day job to support his pursuit of music ultimately ended in his success of “connecting glass, tribal culture, family, and art.” Since his start, he has gained acclaim, with his art being showcased in over 35 museums and public spaces around the world. Today, we are honored to present Preston as the poster artist for the 2020 Northwest Folklife Festival, representing our Cultural Focus: Living Legacies.

He began glasswork in 1982 as a production glassworker. Soon after, he attended Pilchuck Glass School in 1984 where he served in different roles including as a student, teaching assistant, teacher, and staff member. From there, his work led him to Sweden, where he mastered Scandanavian design. However, through it all, what Preston finds most fulfilling in his craft is the ability to bridge the worlds of European glass blowing and Northwest Native art.

Much of Preston’s glasswork draws inspiration from his Tlingit roots. “The traditional art of the Tlingit is where I draw my inspiration, but also a love of Indigenous art from around the world, as well as Modernism, Primitivism and Surrealist art,” he says. “Once I learned how to create my own Tlingit designs, utilizing the system commonly referred to as “formline,” it opened up a whole new dimension for me and I found huge freedom in working with the design system and adapting it to different blown glass objects.”

Preston explains that he sees his work as an extension of his culture, where he constantly finds balance in mastering the process of glassblowing while also incorporating the graphic design of the Tlingit culture. “This allows me to develop different perspectives about how our traditional art integrates into the modern art world,” he says.

I had no idea that I’d be so connected to the material in the way that I am,” he says. “It was only when I began to experiment with using designs from my Tlingit cultural heritage that my work began to take on a new purpose and direction.

As an honored culture bearer, artist, and legacy to our greater community, we are honored to name Preston as the poster artist for this year’s Northwest Folklife Festival. With his passion for preserving Native art, exploring connections between art and culture, and passing on these traditions to current and future generations, we honor Preston as a Living Legacy.

His artwork featured on the poster reflects his killer whale design, which he explains “showcases the beloved animal living in the waters of the Salish Sea, while also [showcasing] my crest symbol from the Tlingit tribe.”

Preston acknowledges that as a culture bearer, you must pass on the traditions that have once been passed down to you. “I have been taught that once you become a keeper of cultural knowledge it becomes a responsibility,” he says. “I have had the great honor of working with many traditional elders to learn the songs and stories of the Tlingit culture as well as training with a NuChahNulth elder, Joe David. I like to work with nontraditional mediums to inspire the next generation of what the possibilities are.”

He draws inspiration from fellow Pacific Northwest artists including Gerrard Tsutakawa, Buster Simpson, Dante Marioni, Richard Marquis, Duane Pasco, as well as many many of the other glass artists.

Khu.éex’ performing at the Northwest Folklife Festival (2018) Photo by Christopher Nelson

Alongside his work as a renowned artist, Preston has been connected to Northwest Folklife as a musician since 1986. He first played at the Northwest Folklife Festival with Rumors of the Big Wave, and in recent years, with his bands, A Little Big Band and Khu.éex’.

The Northwest Folklife Festival is a very important event for our community and it showcases ethnic music from all over the world.
Family Story Totem | Lead Crystal | 86″ x 24″ x 17″ Photo by Russell Johnson

Preston’s work has been showcased internationally including in The British Museum (London, UK), The Museum of Fine Arts (Boston, MA), The Seattle Art Museum (Seattle, WA), the Corning Museum of Glass (Corning, NY), the Mint Museum of Art and Design (Charlotte, NC), the Heard Museum (Phoenix, AZ), and the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC).

Currently, he is working on monumental glass sculptures in the form of 3-8-foot-tall totem poles. He also is featured in public art commissions and a traveling show that will soon make its way to the Smithsonian Institution in D.C. in October 2020.

Most recently, his work can be seen in this unique solo traveling exhibition, Preston Singletary: Raven and the Box of Daylight. Presented by the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, WA, this traveling exhibit showcases the Tlingit story of Raven and his transformation of the world, where he brings light to people through the stars, moon, and sun. It is currently displayed at the Wichita Art Museum through August 30, 2020.

Aside from creating art and music, Preston celebrates his ‘folklife’ through enjoying “the diversity of music from around the world.”

Music is medicine and all those who hear it can be healed through it.
Aside from creating art and music, Preston celebrates his ‘folklife’ through enjoying “the diversity of music from around the world.”

You can learn more about Preston Singletary and his artwork here: