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A Skagway artist shares the inspiration for his newest project

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Skagway’s new Shoreline Park restroom project will feature a Northwest Coast formline style metal cutout called Reflection. Lifelong Skagway resident Beau Dennis created it. 

“It’s an eagle looking directly at another eagle, you know, as a mirror image. I have two meanings in that for myself. It was kind of like looking into a mirror but looking into the past to my ancestors for strength and guidance. Especially, as you know, the times that I was working on that and creating it was in the heart of a pandemic. And so it was that idea of being able to find strength and guidance in places where you wouldn’t necessarily always look for it and at the same time it’s you know, a reflection of looking at yourself,” said Dennis.

The piece will be a five-foot by eight-foot metal cutout and will be in the style Dennis has been working with for about five years.

“Northwest Coast formline art has been practiced by the indigenous peoples all the way from the northern area of Southeast Alaska all the way down to the Seattle area and down even into northern Oregon. And so form line speaks to the style of the art where we’re using individual forms that we bring together to create one cohesive piece,” said Dennis.

He says with formline art you can trace around the main piece of the formline without ever lifting your finger so everything is completely connected. Many pieces of this style contain specific colors.

“Black and red and even you know in this area into a bluish-green, I guess you could call it turquoise or teal were the primary colors that were used. The main reason again is the lack of resources. It’s not like they could just go out and buy a tube of acrylic paint so they’re making their own pigments and dyes. The red is coming from crushed berries that are mixed with crushed stone and then you know a binder which a lot of times was saliva and then going into the blacks you’re looking at your charcoals and just finding these natural resources that can create these colors,” said Dennis.

He says this form of art was almost lost by years of colonial assimilation into the western culture.

“Being moved out of places and being you know, told not to practice our Potlatches and art and dancing.”

So modern artists have had to develop terms and methods that best represent the traditional styles.

“Natives in this area just had oral history they had no written language. So these are things that scholars greater than myself have studied for years and years and put names to so that we can move forward and again revive this art, you know, and it’s in a strong revival,” said Dennis.

He says this style has been used for thousands of years. And he is both impressed and humbled by the mastery of early works.

“A lot of the inspiration that I take comes from pieces that were done in the mid-1800s,” said Dennis.

He also says he’s excited for his art to be on display in a public setting.

“I’m beyond thrilled with the idea that my artwork will be upfront and center on a building that visitors from all over the world get to see first thing when they arrive. And then therein also learning a little bit about the culture as they’re coming in and knowing that, you know, Skagway wasn’t just a Gold Rush community, there’s a lot more to it, so it’s a great opportunity to further that knowledge and education,” said Dennis.

He expects the restroom project to be completed next spring prior to the arrival of the first cruise ships of the summer season. He plans to continue working with the municipality on future art projects and is currently teaching a Northwest Coast formline art class to local kids through a day camp program.

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