Chloe French is a Tlingit artist based in Bellingham, Washington, the recent artist in residence at the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka. Her work is inspired by Tlingit ceremonial bibs, but she adds her own twist to the tradition.
I meet Chloe French at the Sheldon Jackson museum. She’s sitting behind a table displaying a number of her bibs. She picks up a bib and starts telling me about it.
“I collect the myths from around the Southeast,” French says. “One is a variation on the Raven steals the Sun, on this one, when raven steals the sun, the sun is in a bag, so when he flies out of the smoke hole, there’s no light. And he flies around and flies around and he lands on the bank of the Nass river and he calls to the people on the other side to come get him, and they refuse. So he throws the sun into the sky and the people on the other side of the river all turn into the animals of the pelts they’re wearing.”
The bib is made of wool felt and has embroidery and beadwork outlining shapes of various animals. It has a dark background with bursts of color–orange, yellow, blue, red.
“On the piece I have Raven and I have the sun,” French says. “I’ve made bear, seal, and fox turn so that they’re half human half animal. And because I’m a killer whale, I put a killer whale on.”
“What does that mean that you’re a killer whale?” I ask.
French says, “My clan is Tsaagweidi, the killer whale seal clan.”
French used to come to Southeast Alaska in childhood and was captivated by the Native work she saw in museums here. She remembers seeing a Chilkat robe and deciding that one day she wanted to make one. She wove one in 2008. She also noticed the ceremonial bibs. The traditional versions are usually clan crest designs. The decoration is dense beadwork–no applique like French’s work.
“The ceremonial bibs,” French says, “which are incredibly beautiful, are worn at special occasions and put away so if you’re not there, you’ll never see these bibs. And I decided I wanted a bib that you could wear anytime.”
French has been making bibs for 5 years. She’s never worked on traditional bibs and there’s sometimes a little tension between French and strict traditionalists. “I do believe,” French says, “that for people who work in the traditional materials and only in traditional ways, that’s perfect too. It’s wonderful. It’s just not what I’m interested in. I’ve always done my own thing. I’ve always been contrary.”
French tells me how she makes the bibs. She starts by basting down the felt shapes, which means she uses loose stitches to hold the shapes in place. “I start sewing them down,” she says, “and I’ll bead around the edges. All of them are backed with fabric to cover up the stitches. And then usually I’ll decorate the edge with more beading. So that’s the process. They take probably a month for each one to make.”
“For people who do wear your bibs,” I say, “when do they usually wear them? What is that like?”
“Anytime you want,” she says. “I would wear it to the symphony. I would not eat soup.” She suggests wearing them with jeans to really stand out.
For French, the contemporary aspects of her work also have a deeper significance.
“We are not a gone, dead people,” she says. “We are as acquisitive as anybody else.”