Tlingit artist Jennifer Younger has been creating jewelry for the past few years, and in that time she’s garnered a following for her work that blends formline design and traditional metal carving with her unique style. Earlier this month, Younger was selected as a 2020 Rasmuson Individual Artist, one of 36 artists in the state to receive the prestigious award and one of only 10 to receive a competitive fellowship for mid-career artists.
Last summer, KCAW’s Katherine Rose visited Younger in her studio. Listen to the story here:
Jennifer Younger sits at her workbench, filing down the edges of what will soon be a silver bracelet. Light streams in through the window, and her fluffy white cat Bella watches from its sill, unbothered by the sound of metal scraping metal.
“A lot of people will say, when the sun comes out, ‘Don’t you want to be outside?’ No I can see it from here,” Younger laughs.
Younger is a jewelry artist, a path she found herself pursuing just a few years ago.
“Gosh, I’ve only been doing it for six years and I could have had my whole lifetime doing this. You can’t really have regret I guess,” she says. “I look back at everything I’ve done and I feel like it all kind of led me to this point.”
Although she’s lived in Sitka for the past 23 years, Younger is originally from Yakutat.
“My family, we lived a little bit, I always say out of town, it was only a mile and a half up the road. We didn’t have running water or electricity. I spent a lot of time outdoors or in the woods. At the beach. Out in nature,” she says. “A part of not having electricity as a child- we didn’t watch TV very much. It was always go outside and play or if you’re gonna be inside, when you’re done doing chores you can draw, you can color. So I’ve always been into art in some way.”
Several years ago, Younger began learning Northwest Coast formline design and silver and metal carving from renowned Tlingit carver Dave Galanin and his son, Tlingit-Unangax multidisciplinary artist Nicholas Galanin.
As an apprentice, Younger learned that formline design follows strict rules — which can vary regionally along the coast. But by following those rules an artist can find unlimited freedom of expression.
“Dave always was very encouraging and supportive of us having new ideas and trying different things. He said “Do whatever you want, make sure you do proper formline,” she says. “When you’re creating a piece and drawing a design, making sure it has proper balance and proper flow to the whole picture.”
Early on in her work, Younger had an idea for a piece that was really bugging her.
“I was like, “Dave I’ve never seen a formline spider. Can I make a bracelet with a spider on it? He was like sure. Go for it, as long as you do proper formline,” she says. “That was inspiring in the sense of- I had never seen a formline spider. I was like “I can be creative. I don’t have to look back at all of these older, more traditional designs. I can think outside of the box a little bit.”
While Younger likes that the art form allows her to think outside of the box, her process is still traditional. She starts by sketching the design.
“I’ll just sit down and do a rough sketch on a pencil and kind of dive in. I work here in what would be a dining room. I don’t have grinders and electric polishers, I do it all by hand,” she says.
Younger usually likes to work with copper.
“Copper I felt like was more traditional metal to southeast. I like that more earthy feel. I’m not a blingy, shiny person,” she says. “I’ll make that for somebody if they want it. But I like something that feels more…I don’t know, everyday wear.”
And sometimes she uses sea salt to give the copper a striking blue patina.
“I put salt on it, you can use vinegar, you can use baking soda baking soda. I seal it up in a container and see what happens. I don’t really measure- I throw things together and wait to see how it will turn out.”
Today she’s putting the finishing touches on a silver bracelet – but she can’t sign her work with an ink pen.
“I’ll sign my squiggly J on the back,” she says, and her engraver buzzes as she etches her initial on the back of the bracelet. Then she adds the date.
“Oh there, now I have to do it this year. Better get it done in the next few months.”
When she’s finished carving the design onto the piece and the edges are smoothed out, she takes a shaping tool, a small mallet, and begins tapping on the metal bracelet to give it a rounded shape.
Perhaps you’ll see her work on various wrists around town. If you’re not sure, look for her squiggly “J” signature.
Younger will receive an $18,000 grant from the Rasmuson Foundation. She says she plans to use the award to create a contemporary art exhibit that reflects traditional Tlingit designs. To view her work, find her on instagram @jennifers_copper_silver or visit her website.