iSchool's Belarde-Lewis puts her stamp on an ancient story

By Doug Parry Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Miranda Belarde-Lewis, an assistant professor at the University of Washington Information School, recently had what she calls a “petrifying honor”: curating an exhibit of glass artist Preston Singletary’s work that tells an ancient Native story.

The immersive multimedia exhibit recently began a year-long installation at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma. From there, it is scheduled to go to the Wichita Art Museum in Kansas and then to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in fall 2020.

The exhibit takes visitors through the “Raven and the Box of Daylight,” a Tlingit story of how Raven, a trickster figure, transformed the world by releasing the stars, moon and sun. The story unfolds through Singletary’s glass sculptures as Tlingit storytellers’ voices tell their versions of the ancient tale in the Tlingit language. Echoing the story, the exhibit starts visitors in darkness and eventually takes them to a brightly lit room.

Miranda Belarde-Lewis
Miranda Belarde-Lewis

There are many Raven stories and many versions of the Raven and the Box of Daylight story, so its specifics depend upon who is doing the telling. (You can read one version here.) As the curator, Belarde-Lewis researched the stories, designed a narrative and helped Singletary choose which objects would help convey the details that he wanted to illustrate. A member of the Takdeintaan Clan of the Tlingit Nation, she felt a great responsibility to ensure that the exhibit does justice to the story.

“This story is thousands of years old, and dealing with that as the subject material is humbling,” she said. “It’s an honor, but it is scary. This story is known all up and down the Northwest coast, and I’m hoping that I got it right for the Native audience.”

The exhibit is several years in the making. Tlingit historian Walter Porter worked with Singletary on the initial idea until Porter’s death in 2013. Porter sought to show the universal themes in the Raven and the Box of Daylight story and the similarities it shares with stories from other cultures around the world. Belarde-Lewis, who has also curated two previous exhibits for the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, joined the project after Porter’s passing. Along with her expertise as a curator, she was very familiar with Raven stories.

“Some stories stick with you more than others, and that story is a very well-known one,” she said.

The plan to take the exhibit to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., is particularly thrilling to Belarde-Lewis, whose time as a research assistant at the museum helped shape her career in both art and academia. She worked with several professors who curated the museum’s inaugural exhibits, and seeing their work prompted her to go to graduate school.

“It just seemed like the best of both worlds. It was very inspiring,” she said. “Being able to come back with an exhibit is really exciting.”

Images at top, from left: "Realm, Water — Killer Whale Figure," 2018; "Wealth — Eagle Rattle," 2013; "White Raven," 2017. All works by Preston Singletary; photos by Russell Johnson, courtesy of the Museum of Glass.

Learn more about Singletary's work and hear from Belarde-Lewis in this episode of "Nature":