Infrared photography reveals centuries-old form line paintings on Lingít bentwood boxes

Zachary James is the Collections Coordinator at the Haines Sheldon Museum (Corinne Smith / KHNS)

Several traditional Lingit bentwood boxes are part of the Haines Sheldon Museum’s collection of 23,000 objects. Handcrafted from cedar wood and painted, the boxes were used for storage or traded goods, according to the museum’s collections coordinator Zachary James.

“These, I think, were probably used for the badges because they have really nice paintings on them,” James said. “But they were also general purpose storage boxes. “

James is Lingit, with ancestors in Wrangell and the Stikine Basin as well as the Chilkat Valley. And he is actively interested in Lingít art and heritage, especially new ways of looking at the pieces in the museum’s collection.

And recently, he used an infrared camera to photograph the traditional bentwood boxes, revealing paintings that hadn’t been seen for perhaps 200 years.

“It basically looks like a black surface on wood and then these amazing images can be pulled out of it,” he said.

Traditional bentwood boxes are available in different sizes. Large boxes contained blankets, clothing, and ceremonial items such as badges. The medium-sized boxes held food and the small boxes held berries, toys, sewing supplies and special treasures, according to the museum exhibit.

Over time, the exterior varnish darkened, possibly due to soot or grime and storage conditions obscuring the original paintings. Some paintings were completely hidden. On others, you can see a slight outline.

A museum exhibit with an old brown wooden box flanked by infrared images printed with shape line paintings
James hopes the designs of the bentwood boxes can inspire today’s artists (Corinne Smith / KHNS)

“And if you look at it from the side, you can kind of see, or in certain lighting conditions, you can kind of see the design, but you can’t really make it out very clearly,” James said.

Using an infrared lens on a digital camera, James photographed the bentwood boxes, which date back to the 1800s, capturing the striking images of the shape line below.

“Normal light reflects on the outside,” James said. “Infrared light penetrates through the varnish, then bounces off the pigment or wood, and then reflects,” James said. “And so he has the ability to see through that kind of gunk on the outside.”

Newly revealed shape line paintings are now on display in the Hakkinen Gallery at the Haines Sheldon Museum (Corinne Smith / KHNS)

James says he got the idea for the book The Transforming Image: Painted Arts of Northwest Coast First Nations, a project of the University of British Columbia museum. The book features infrared photographs of many boxes and paintings of different shaped lines from the Northwest Coast.

“Things like killer whales, eagles, crows and frogs and things like that usually belong to a specific house or clan, so things with those kinds of designs weren’t usually traded between other people. “James said. “So they were doing these abstract designs, and that way it was okay to trade them between different people or use them for resale basically. It was before the adoption of currency or the fundamentally colonial culture or something like that western culture with money.

For James, it was an exciting revelation.

“This is probably the first time in a few hundred years that these drawings and works of art have even been able to be appreciated or viewed. So I felt like it was good to see him again.

Haines Sheldon Museum Board Chair Kelleen Adams said James’ initiative and the project were valuable to the Haines community.

“It’s such a treasure to have this in Haines,” Adams said. “And for Zach to have that idea, to bring this piece of art to life, to show people what’s been going on underneath for hundreds of years, it’s amazing. So we are very fortunate to be able to witness this.

Side-by-side infrared images showing two paintings of shape lines from a single box
One side of this box has been painted with a circle (Corinne Smith / KHNS)

James says the recently revealed designs are important to the larger Lingit Heritage Recovery and Protection Project of the Chilkat Valley and Southeast Alaska.

“Consistently, Indigenous art has been taken out of Indigenous hands and placed in European or American institutions. I mean, there’s Lingit art from this valley in Russia and Germany and everywhere, also at the University of Pennsylvania, ”James said.

“We have no idea what is in private hands, what has been lost over the years,” James said. “So every bit of information about the Lingit art forms that we can draw from is important.”

Formline involves a complex and often subtle language of rules and patterns, so James says the recovered images are important for local Lingit artists to study the art form.

The exhibition is part of the museum’s “Six Week Spotlight” and will be on display until mid-December. Entrance is free for residents of Haines. Otherwise it’s $ 10, and the museum is open Wednesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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