Shopping in Rico and Crystal Worl’s Alaska Native art store might feel a little like visiting a well-curated exhibit. Designs that for centuries have been used on Tlingit and other masks, totem poles, canoe paddles and bentwood boxes are now found on skateboards, basketballs, hoodies, T-Shirts, playing cards, bracelets and greetings cards.
The Worls, whose work is notable enough to serve as official gifts to former President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, operate Trickster Co. in downtown Juneau. The siblings say they want to ensure that Alaska Native art sold traces back to an artist, not to an overseas manufacturer who produces mold-crafted kitsch work only to promote it as authentic.
“It’s a gateway,” Crystal said. “We are not only breaking destructive stereotypes, but we are also giving buyers access to local artists, something they didn’t have a few years ago. It’s a chance to learn about the artist and learn about their home. It’s one of the reasons people come here—to learn.”
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The designs are a Northwest Coast technique known as formline, a signature style featuring lines that taper and swell, creating shapes used to depict humans and animals. The lines move while constantly changing width and direction.
It’s an art that doesn’t come easy, and, Rico said, requires patience.
“When you first start studying formline, it may seem like a strenuous art to learn because you have to learn a lot of general rules,” he said. “You learn a lot about the cultural rules. It can be intimidating.”
Four years ago, Trickster Co. was simply an idea Rico wrote, revised and revised again as a business plan. He worked on his plan between sketching designs for snowboards, skis and skateboard decks. If there was still time in a given day, he designed jewelry—all while holding a full-time job as art director for the Sealaska Heritage Institute.
Unbeknownst to him, his little sister, Crystal, was on a similar bent, busily drafting her own business plan while studying at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
As Rico began pursuing his plan, the two discovered a mutual passion to advance their heritage not just as artists but also art advocates. Today, the Tlingit/Athabascan siblings—Rico is 32, and Crystal is 28– are partners in business and in art.
“When we were younger, oh we fought a lot,” Rico said. “We’re close now, but we also know how to give each other space. I don’t know what drove Crystal and I to be best friends in a sense, but having a value of family for us is a strong factor.”
Rico jump-started the business in July 2014, opening the store that July. It was so sparsely stocked that the display window featured only the playing cards. Today the window presents a snapshot of the store’s offerings: prints, t-shirts, jewelry and small bentwood boxes.
Rico emerged onto the national scene with designs for skateboard decks, taking his wares to the Santa Fe Indian Market in 2012. Since then his work has been featured in the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, the Burke Museum at Seattle’s University of Washington, and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.
While skateboards put Rico on the national stage, making jewelry became his favorite pursuit. However, building the business is his priority. And his distinct style is making its mark; the nontraditional canvas gets noticed. In August 2015, when Obama and Kerry paid an official visit to Alaska, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, Tlingit, presented the basketballs as part of the gift package to the state’s guests.
Mique’l Dangeli, a northwest coast art professor with the University of Alaska Southeast campus, says it’s natural for artists to migrate away from traditional media such as wood, especially red cedar grown in the Pacific Northwest.
“I see it as a continuum that we are continuing the work of our ancestors,” said Dangeli, a Tsimshian who grew up in Metlakatla and became the first Alaska Native to earn a Ph.D. in Northwest Coast art studies. “There is not a stopping point where this is what’s traditional and this is what’s contemporary. I see so many collections of our ancient work where at the time, they were pushing what others may consider the limits of the art in the master-apprenticeship system, and we are doing the same thing today.”
Crystal’s designs decorate decks and basketballs as well, but her prints have found their way into dignitaries’ homes. In August 2015 she was among five Native artists from around the country to be commissioned by the U.S. Department of State’s Arts in Embassies program. She produced a 33-print series, one of which hung in Biden’s Washington D.C. home.
The following spring, Crystal and Rico were among five Alaska artists whose work was featured in the Orenda Art International in Paris, joining Larry Ahvakana (Inupiaq), Drew Campbell (Yup’ik) and Alison Bremner, a Tlingit artist whose work is also sold at Trickster Co.
Crystal attended the May 2016 opening in Paris, which coincided with an auction of Tlingit and Haida ceremonial objects, among hundreds of others belonging to Native tribes. So she took part in a small protest outside the Eve Auction House prior to the sale.
“It’s frustrating; it’s upsetting,” she said once back in the States. “There is no Tlingit word for art, as our ceremonial objects are living beings. We needed to let the spirits know we were there, let our ancestors know we were standing there for them, before the art goes off to the private homes.”
Back home, the Worls have learned of recent efforts by the U.S. Department of Justice to secure several convictions in Southeast Alaska against retailers misrepresenting art as authentic. Rico says he doesn’t believe most retailers understand the cultural or legal implications. This, he says, is one reason why he and Crystal cannot be passive artists. Rather, they and fellow artists need to be publicly accessible to those getting their first looks at authentic art and design.
One of those artists is Bremner. Her work gets international attention, but she said the placement in Trickster Co. has additional significance.
“It is very difficult as an artist and as a Tlingit to see the non–Native made objects in tourist shops,” she said. “The objects, their makers and those who sell the objects are degrading and oversimplifying a very complex culture. This takes away jobs from Native people and sends false messages to consumers about the value of our art forms.”
The normalization of such appropriation cheapens the work and denigrates Native culture, Bremner said.
“It is offensive to see an art form that was given to us by our ancestors mutated and mass produced as bottle openers,” Bremner noted. “It is offensive to see a non-Native artist, who has no history of helping the Native community, feel entitled to appropriate our art because they grew up in Alaska. Many people have accepted the appropriation, because it is so widespread it becomes almost normal.”
Rico says the store features work from about a dozen other artists at a given time.
“I have a hard time claiming we support a lot of artists right now because we don’t do it at a level I would like to—yet,” he said. “In the past few years the business has relied on me for my handmade jewelry.”
He feels momentum growing.
“I really feel like we are starting to get up to a true product line, of our own products,” he said. “I’m focusing on expanding that product line. It means I can go to other artists and afford their stuff at wholesale price and fill ourselves.”
With their own work plus that of other artists, the store’s inventory began to overtake work areas, so the Worls opened a nearby studio where projects will no longer compete for space.
“What it is to us is a dedicated space for creation and production,” Rico said. “Being a few years with the shop, we are at the point where we need a lot more dedicated time and organization. What Crystal and I are trying to do and what we want to represent is that Native people aren’t just something of the past. Neither is our art. We are here today, and we are still inspired by stories we hear today.”