Among the most famous living Tlingit artists, Nathan Jackson was honored when the National Museum of the American Indian opened in Washington, D.C., in September 2004, featuring one of his totem poles. Jackson has been working in Alaska Native arts since 1959. He attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he specialized in fabric design, silkscreen, and graphics. Since 1967, he has been a freelance artist doing traditional-style woodcarving, jewelry and design. Jackson has completed numerous totem poles, screens, panels, and restoration projects. He has instructed woodcarving and design at several institutions, including the Alaska State Museum, Sheldon Jackson College, the Totem Heritage Center and the University of Alaska. In 1995 was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship Award. In 2009, the Rasmuson Foundation recognized his contributions to Alaska by naming him its Distinguished Artist of the Year.
Jackson's artwork is on display in every major museum – as well as many public and private buildings – in the state of Alaska. His work can also be found in museums and private collections throughout North America, Europe and Japan.
When I can look out my window and see the things that are important to me — trees and the ocean — I know that I am at home. As an artist, I seek inspiration from my surroundings. In a place where Native art and culture flourishes, the people are authentic and the land is full of elements that are raw and beautiful, Ketchikan will not let me leave. It is my muse.
1.) Setting out to sea
Setting out for George Inlet near Ketchikan in my 18-foot Crestliner and tossing a line for halibut or king salmon is how I feel most connected with Alaska. I use a small boat, so any time the weather is good, I can just hook up my trailer and take off. Where is my favorite fishing spot? If you know anything about Alaska fishermen, it’s that they never reveal their secrets. Usually, in the early spring, there is still a little bit of snow on the mountains. The air is crisp coming off the surrounding trees, and you hope for a wisp of warm wind coming through telling you summer is on the way. Fishermen in Ketchikan welcome the rain, and it rains a lot, because that is when the fish start biting. Most of the fishermen are fishing for herring, but in the meantime are drinking coffee or chatting with other fishermen. When someone catches king salmon, you know they’re out there.
2.) Notice the wood in Ketchikan
As a carving artist, the first thing I notice in my surroundings is the wood. Depending on where you are, the wood is very different. For totem poles and larger projects, red cedar is the choice wood and is called the tree of life. Yellow cedar has straight grain, and is ideal for smaller projects. There is plenty of alder, a leaf tree that I use for masks and bowls, even hats. In Saxman, a Tlingit community near Ketchikan, the Cape Fox Native Corporation offers tours of Totem Park (9883 N. Tongass Hwy, 907-247-8574), one of the largest collections of totem poles in the world. The tours always stop in at the carving center where people have a chance to see myself and other carvers at work. Visitors can purchase Alaska Native art at the Saxman Village store.
3.) A cup of coffee
My son and I usually go over to the New York Hotel & Café (207 Stedman St., 907-225-0246) for a cup of coffee. It’s a nice, old-fashioned building and has maintained the look of its original form when it was a hotel, with all the old wood furnishings. As you enjoy a cup of coffee, you can watch the fishing boats out at the moorage and see the big ships coming in and view the Ketchikan Bridge.
4.) The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show
In the summer, Ketchikan is the best place to see a logging show. The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show (420 Spruce Mill Way, 907-225-9050) is an attraction in which contestants can test their skills rolling logs in the water, throwing an axe, chopping or climbing a spar tree. You can hear the crowds raving any time the cruise ships come in.