Tlingit Formline in the Desert
James Johnson (Tlingit)
The suburban enclave where James Johnson lives is quiet and cookie-cutter, lined with townhome upon identical townhome bathed in hues of beiges and tans in a corner of Gilbert, Arizona. It isn’t the sort of neighborhood in the metro Phoenix desert where one would expect to find a creative studio cranking out work rooted in Indigenous Alaska; pieces carved of mighty red and yellow cedar trees from the temperate rainforest and adorned in paintings of seafaring animals like salmon, whale and otter. But it became that place when, 12 years ago, Johnson packed up and moved from the cold so that he could help take care of his ailing mother.
Just like the neighborhood outside, Johnson’s living space and studio garage are neat and organized. Silent. His home is alive with spectacular coastal carvings and bold paintings of traditional culture, a wave of ocean water in a sea of sand. It was here in the sweltering heat Johnson, a commercial artist, taught himself an ancient form of Tlingit painting, poring over books and frequenting museums.
1. Tlingit artist JamesJohnson uses various types of brushes to apply detail to his wood paintings. Photo by Anthony Thosh Collins. 2. Kéet Woochaagáa, Alaskan yellow cedar, acrylic, 96". Photo by Ian Tetzner.