Out of the Vault: Soundtracks with Preston Singletary

Making art from glass is time-consuming. It is an undertaking that can unfold over hours, but more often takes place over days, weeks, or even months. A great music playlist can be essential to keeping focused and staying creative. These playlists were the starting point for our exhibition Out of the Vault: Soundtracks. MOG Curator Katie Buckingham sat down with Preston Singletary to learn more about his work in the exhibition and his creative process.

KB: I was hoping we could start off with your take on Killer Whale Medallion, our recent acquisition from the Robert M. Minkoff Foundation Collection.

PS: It was designed from one of the posts in the Clan House piece that is part of the Museum’s collection. I was trying to figure out some small production pieces that would be easy to make and easy to sell. I took a killer whale form and had it carved in the negative (reverse) on a graphite slab, so that I could pour the glass onto that slab and quickly create Killer Whale Medallion.

KB:  That connection to Clan House is really interesting! I think it is important to also talk about the financial aspects of being an artist – Killer Whale Medallion is an example of how artists try to balance earning a living with creating new ideas and big projects.

PS: For sure. Owning a studio definitely takes vision and a labor of love. I started making that series about 15 years ago when I opened my studio. When I got the studio, I thought, well, I need to figure out how to make it pay for itself. So, I developed Killer Whale Medallion and other smaller scale pieces to try to make money.

KB: I’d love to hear about the playlist you shared with us. You’re the only artist in the exhibition who is also a musician, preforming with the Indigenous band Khu.éex’.

PS: Making the playlist was fun. Playing music was my first creative passion. I listen to music all the time. I love musical hybrids of different styles. I love funk, jazz, and rock. I tried to include a little bit of everything. That’s why I called it “Music that Made Me;” the playlist includes songs that shaped me and the way that I came to appreciate music. Talking Heads is especially important because they introduced me to funk. At the time, they were playing with this musician, Bernie Warrell, co-founder of Parliament Funkadelic. I made Bernie’s acquaintance and worked with him for three years. He was a great improviser and conduit for music, working with musicians from all around the world. Collaborating with him was a huge education in terms of what I knew about music and what I could do with it.

KB: Making music is collaborative, not unlike glassblowing.

PS: Yeah, it is. Music is a team sport, a language that people share. Once you understand the musical situation, you can embellish it in so many different ways. And that’s what I like about it.

KB: And where do you look for inspiration when you’re making new artwork?

PS: I am really fascinated with mythology and trying to imagine how new, contemporary mythologies merge with Native culture. I feel like Native art has been placed in an anthropological corral. I know that if my culture had not been invaded and interrupted, it would have continued to evolve creatively. Instead, today, Native art is much more multi-cultural. A lot of my work goes into non-Native households, whereas before my work would have been embraced by and represented in my own community. Instead, the work I make today gets shared with a larger audience, which is an important opportunity.

KB: KB: That’s interesting! How do you take that frame of mind with you when you work on exhibition like the Museum’s traveling exhibition Preston Singletary: Raven and the Box of Daylight?

PS: I feel like my work needs to show these ancient codes and symbols of the land and present my Native culture in a way that brings more awareness to it. If viewers haven’t seen Native art before, then the exhibition is an opportunity to learn and understand it on another level.

KB: When you’re working in your studio, what helps your creative process?

PS: I’m lucky to have my own studio in the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle. It has a glassblowing and a sandblasting studio, as well as space to mock-up larger installations. I used to have walls of CDs and albums in my office, but now I’ve imported everything onto my computer. But I have a large library and make sure to place books and art around me to create little zones for all of my creativity. I also have a study collection with Native masks and baskets, and other things for inspiration around my studio.

KB: When you’re working, how do you push through a creative block? What would you tell a student having trouble finding their creative rhythm?

PS: When I’m teaching, I try to encourage people to look at their own personal story. Everybody has a story, and everybody comes from somewhere. A lot of people tell me, “Oh, you’re so fortunate to have this rich Native heritage.” That does not necessarily make it easier – I still had a lot to learn in terms of the history, the stories, and the design system. It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was kind of hard. I think that everybody who wants to be creative comes to a fork in the road, where you choose your influences and follow where they lead. But you have to add to your own story. When you dig deep and find your own creativity, then transform that into a visual form…that is awesome.

KB:  We’re so excited that Raven and the Box of Daylight is currently on view at Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. This project took us several years to realize – so what’s on the horizon for you and your work?

PS: I’m starting to think about how to add a contemporary twist to traditional stories. For the Tlingit people, Raven set the world in order and put things into motion to help mankind in this way. So, what is Raven doing now? Maybe he’s trying to combat climate change or looking for the missing and murdered Indigenous women. Maybe he’s discovered the residential school grave sites. This is a much broader world than just the Tlingit world, and my work can have an element of teaching, an element of raising awareness. The opportunity for storytelling is where my work is heading.

Check out Preston Singletary’s playlist on Spotify, and visit us at Museum of Glass to see more of our collection featured in Out of the Vault: Soundtracks.

About The Artist:
The art of Preston Singletary has become synonymous with the relationship between European glass blowing traditions and Northwest Native art.  His artworks feature themes of transformation, animal spirits, and shamanism through elegant blown glass forms and mystical sand-carved Tlingit designs. 

Singletary’s work is featured in Out of the Vault: Soundtracks, currently on display at Museum of Glass and open through June 18, 2023.

Learn more and view Singletary’s work at https://www.prestonsingletary.com/

  1. Preston Singletary working in his studio. Photo by Mac Holt.
  2. Preston Singletary (American Tlingit, born 1963). Killer Whale Medallion, 2010. Cast glass; 12 5/8 × 9 7/8 × 4 15/16 in. (32.1 × 25.1 × 12.5 cm). Collection of Museum of Glass, Tacoma, Washington, gift of the Robert M. Minkoff Foundation. Photo by Russell Johnson.
  3. Preston Singletary (American Tlingit, born 1963). Clan House (Naa Kahídi), 2008. Kiln-cast and sand-carved glass; water-jet cut, inlaid, and laminated medallion; 90 1/2 × 120 1/2 × 8 in., 600 lb. (229.9 × 306.1 × 20.3 cm, 272.2 kg). Collection of Museum of Glass, Tacoma, Washington, commissioned with funds provided by Leonard and Norma Klorfine Foundation. Photo by Russell Johnson.
  4. Detail of Clan House (Naa Kahídi) post with Killer Whale Medallion (blue). Photo by Russell Johnson
  5. Detail from Preston Singletary: Raven and the Box of Daylight showing the Nass River and the Fisherman of the Night. On view at Museum of Glass October 3, 2019 through September 2, 2019. Photo by Russell Johnson.
  6. Preston Singletary (American Tlingit, born 1963). Indian Curio Shelf, 2012. Mixed media, glass, and found objects; 58 1/2 x 23 1/2 x 24 in. (148.6 x 59.7 x 61 cm). Collection of Preston Singletary. Photo courtesy of the artist.