Tuesday, February 12, 2019

#28 - Formline Design and Native Drum, An Art Form 1,000 Years Old

Skagway News Front Page Feb 9, 2009

SKAGWAY'S TRADITIONAL COUNCIL recently held a class on Tlingit drum making, immersing me at least into an art form a thousand years old: Formline Design. I hate to admit, but all my life I've looked at Northwest Coastal Indian art as "seen one, seen all." My eyes glanced right on past to the next thing in the gift shop or museum. I no longer do this. Formline design, I've discovered to my chagrin, is composed of three basic shapes: the U, the ovoid, and S. And by using these three "lego" pieces and endless variations, you can create images of intricate sophistication.

the 3 basic shapes of formline design
I would have known this had I taken the time to linger and study the drums, totems, dugouts, paddles, and masks I'd grown up with as a child living on the Pacific coastline of Canada and along Washington State's Puget Sound. Never too late to learn, though, and better late than never. 

The drum making was almost immaterial. Abel Ryan, our teacher, a master carver from Metlakatla, AK, hurried us past the construction to the art, where he proved to be a master teacher as well. But first, the drum...

Judy, Abel, Tom, I think a guy named Dennis--making Indian drums
We were given a kit that consisted of a long string of sinew, a 15" hoop, and a pie crust of elk hide that had been soaking in water for how long I wouldn't presume to know. This we were supposed to stretch to make the hide thin. Thin meant a delightful vibration and echo when done.
Brenda Wilbee making Indian drum
Right off, I'm hit with the fact that I don't have the necessary chest muscle or hand strength to sufficiently "stretch" a circle of elk hide that's close to 20" in diameter and an eighth of an inch thick! And how I am supposed to get a grip when it's all floppy and wet? Anxiety kicks in. My efforts will not yield a playable drum. Alrighty then, I think, switching gears. I'll focus instead on the art. In the meantime, keep stretching.

Backside of Indian DrumTen minutes later, we move to the sinew. This, too, has to be stretched. A slippery trick and one that wears out your fingers.

Now we're roping the hide to the hoop, using pre-drilled holes around the "pie crust" edge--12:00 to 6:00, 1:00 to 7:00, 2 to 8, and all around the clock, trying to keep the sinew taut, the hide centered--lacing, tightening, tying off. Not a job for sissies.

Finally, formline design. Three shapes. Oh my gosh. 

My spirit animals are bear and buffalo. The Coastal Indians, however, had no familiarity with the buffalo. Bear it had to be, and I determined to create a face-on view. But with just three basic shapes? How? I was flummoxed and frozen. "Help..." I begged.

Brenda Wilbee's sketch of bear face done in formline drawingAbel started doodling. Three minutes later, he handed me the foundation I needed for my first foray into unknown waters. That night I took his design home, scotch-taped together four sheets of paper, and started in with pencil--and eraser.

Another kick of anxiety. I could not make my bear face symmetrical to save my life. I took what I had to class and Beau Dennis, a Tlingit man, offered me tracing paper and taught me a trick of flipping it over and tracing my pencil line directly onto the drum skin. Flip, flip, and I had the faint outline of "Big Bear."

The end of our third class, many people were finished with the painting of their designs, many of us were not. Mine was not done.
Indian drums

The problem with my bear--even when I got it's eyes painted in--was that it looked a bit like Felix the Cat clock. All I had to do was paint in the 12-3-6-9 in the eye sockets and add a swinging tail. So I went over to Betsy's every afternoon for a week and the two of us offered suggestions back and forth.
Added blue and framed the drum  |  Betsy hard at work with Abel Ryan  |  Painted the nose
added the blue  |  Betsy Albecker  |  Abel Ryan  |  painted the nose

Brenda Wilbee's Drum
At last, done!

Hibernation is over
Wake up, Bear. Open eyes.
Needing food, chow time!