I weave to bring order to my thoughts, to converge with the realms beyond our seeing eye, and to help bring the past into the present, and present into future.
I weave because it makes washing the dishes more enjoyable, the diaper changing more delightful, and the spice rack alphabetizing more meaningful (What? You don’t alphabetize?). When I start my day weaving, I bounce when I walk, sing as I talk, and smile with everything. Weaving Chilkat is like breathing with the universal consciousness. All is well in the world when I’m weaving.
When my fingers forget how to move through the warp, I throw my arms up and clear my mind, saying, “Ok, Mama, and Jennie, I need your help,” I exhale and place my hands back in the warp. Every time, it’s as though they were here, working right beside me.
That’s what art means. It means our teachers don’t die. It means the spirit of all things lives on in us, in our art. We have a responsibility to honor and carry on the teachings, to keep creating, to share our version of spirit with others, so when we pass, we’ve left the world more beautiful, through our weavings and through a joyful spirit.
—Lily Hope, artist statement excerpt
I called Lily Hope at her Juneau, Alaska, studio one snowy day in November 2020. She rents out a small space on the third floor of a mixed-use professional building, and its southern-facing bay windows flood the room with warm sunlight on a clear day. It is filled with weaving supplies, some of which Lily’s mother, Tlingit master weaver Clarissa Rizal, left her when she passed away in 2016. The walls are covered with photos of Clarissa, other family members, and master weaver Jennie Thlunaut, plus pieces of art made by people Lily admires.
Taking pride of place, however, is Lily’s seven-foot loom.
Her weaving practice was the main topic of our conversation that day. While I have been a fan of Lily’s work for quite some time, I was reminded of her skill and creativity after seeing her eye-catching, loom-woven face mask, “Chilkat Protector.”
Winner of the Judge’s Choice Award at this year’s First American Art Magazine’s Masked Heroes competition, her bright blue, “angel fish” dyed, Chilkat-style face mask quickly made the rounds on social media. With its distinctive mouth and nose, framed by a splendid fringe of tin-trimmed warps and ermine tails, this work is unforgettable. And it is a far cry from the masks that most of us now wear as we walk down the street or pick out our groceries at the supermarket.
In a video made earlier this year for the Washington State Historical Society, Lily explained the meaning of this mask and of the iconic, centuries-old Chilkat weaving practice that inspired and facilitated its creation: “For hundreds of years, Chilkat blankets have documented history, clan migration, and stories for the Indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast of America and Canada. ‘Chilkat Protector’ serves as a record of this time. In the future, people will know we were here, we took care of each other, and we survived. We are still weaving.”
“Chilkat Protector” is now one of nearly a dozen masks that Lily has woven in this style.
The idea behind these masks’ development in many ways parallels Lily’s approach to her practice more generally. She described to me a time when someone asked her if she felt limited by weaving within the methodological and stylistic constraints of the Chilkat tradition. Her response? “It’s in the embrace of restriction and rules that you find freedom. If you can master the shapes of our ancestors, you’re hitting the mark and you can bend them, if you will, but if you don’t understand where you come from, what’s the point?”
In Lily’s latest piece, I can see this respect for the past as well as the influence of her personal creativity. It is a robe she has titled “Aantlenx’ Xh’aak: Between Worlds,” which she is currently making for the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Much like “Chilkat Protector,” it is woven in the Chilkat tradition, but this piece incorporates Lily’s background in collage as well. Like the mask, this robe makes a powerful statement in its form as a garment.
“Our Chilkat robes are the closest we get to the spirit realm,” she explained. “We call them the veil between worlds. Our ancestors are always looking out for us. ‘Aantlenx’ Xh’aak: Between Worlds’ is an embodiment of our connection. In the book Solitary Raven, renowned Haida artist Bill Reid used to comment on the old Haida carvers who didn’t pay attention to a law of physics which states that two objects can’t occupy the same space at the same time. The Haida carvers acted as if that law didn’t exist, so different beings would emerge from the same space.
“‘Aantlenx’ Xh’aak: Between Worlds’ has the bones of the Diving Whale, one of the most widely shared patterns in Chilkat weaving. Instead of traditional circles and split-U shapes of old robes, a being seems to peer through at us from the other side, collaged through the bones of traditional shape.”
Lily laughed as she told me that combining these two layers of motifs—a unique approach in Chilkat weaving—is extremely difficult to execute, but that it has worked out so far. She reminded me that the robe will be what it wants to be in the end. I imagined her shrugging on the other end of the line when she added, “and if we don’t set goals that scare us, what are we doing?”
As I thought about the future of “Aantlenx’ Xh’aak: Between Worlds,” I asked Lily how she understands the Northwest Coast robes that are now housed in museum collections. She told me that she usually remembers and repeats something that her mother once told her.
“We Tlingit Haida Tsimshian people had been weaving these blankets for hundreds of years before museums came around. You can think about your work entering the museum as a premature being, and that your baby is incubating for a long while. It might not happen in your lifetime, but they will come home again, and they will be danced. Your work will be a learning tool for other weavers and scholars and art lovers.”
Before it goes to the Houston museum, “Aantlenx’ Xh’aak: Between Worlds” will be danced for the first time at next year’s Gathering of Robes. The organization Spirit Uprising is hosting this event, and Lily is its co-founder and current president. She sees it as a chance for makers to come together and tell their stories, “weaving past, present, and future together.”
While this year’s Gathering of Robes Kickoff Celebration was canceled because of the pandemic, it is rescheduled for 2021, and Spirit Uprising plans to make it a biennial event from then on. According to the website, it will have “the largest collection of ancient and newly-completed woven ceremonial dancing blankets to be danced together within the last century.” Lily’s newest robe will be in good company with others recently woven, as well as with garments borrowed from museum collections for the occasion.
Lily described to me how in the presence of these older weavings, everyone, regardless of their background, “can feel the ancestral being-ness in the room, that there is this awe—almost a palpable awareness” of these blankets as they are danced.
Keeping the Knowledge Going
In addition to being an innovator, Lily is also generous with her knowledge and skills, and the consequences of the pandemic have only amplified the scope and scale of this generosity. In July 2020, she began holding virtual classes in order to create and maintain a space for other Northwest Coast-style weavers like herself.
During some of these virtual classes, participants weave together and ask Lily questions. Sometimes they seek out her expertise on weaving generally, and sometimes they ask for her help when they are stuck on their own projects or have made a mistake. “These classes are heartening because we can all be together and continue weaving,” she told me. “They are holding the space and keeping the knowledge going,” despite the difficulties of traveling and gathering during the pandemic.
“This has been the highlight of coronavirus, coming together and weaving a couple of times a month,” she said. Students have joined in virtually from across North America and come equipped with a range of skill sets and experiences. She has been energized by class conversations, and by how multiple teachers will participate and learn from each other.
Once a graduate student studying elementary education, Lily came to realize that she was meant to be a different kind of teacher, one who carried and shared the knowledge of her mother’s weaving practice. She sees holding these virtual gatherings as part of her job as a lineage holder and as her mother’s skill holder.
The classes are also testaments to her dedication to the vibrant Chilkat weaving tradition. “I want to make sure that someone takes my place when I’m gone,” she said. “I want at least one person to learn anything and everything that I know and to carry that work forward with integrity.”
She hopes that one day her own daughters will be inspired to take this path as well, ensuring that weaving will continue to grow and emerge as an art form, as it has done since time immemorial.
Emily Buhrow Rogers is an ACLS Leading Edge Fellow at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She loves fiber arts and hopes that she will be able to see one of Lily Hope’s weavings in person again someday soon.
Lily Hope is an artist, teacher, and a community facilitator. She is Tlingit Indian, of the Raven moiety. Following her matrilineal line, she’s of her grandmother’s clan, the T’akdeintaan. She intertwines Indigenous techniques and spiritual teachings with traditionally sturdy artist communities, supporting and enthusing Chilkat and Ravenstail weavers internationally.
For more information about Lily Hope and her ongoing projects, visit her website.