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1/20/2018
Varnell talks at Tongass Historical Museum
Guest speaker at the Tongass Historical Museum, Haida artist Donald Varnell, talks Jan. 11 about making small baskets when he was young, of which one is found in the display case at the museum. Photo by Hall Anderson


By ALAINA BARTEL
Daily News Staff Writer

Ketchikan artist Donald Varnell visited the Tongass Historical Museum recently for its Museum Midday program, where he told a few stories and shared some of the many memories he has with artists featured in its “upholding balance” temporary exhibit.

Varnell has studied under Aleut Master Artist Alvin Amason, and has worked and apprenticed under Tlingit master carver Nathan Jackson, as well as Haida master carver Reggie Davidson, according to information from the Ketchikan Area Arts and Humanities Council.

He is a proficient cedar bark weaver, having studied under Haida master weavers Holly Churchill, his aunt; and Delores Churchill, his grandmother. Varnell said he became interested in basket weaving when he was just 4-years-old.

During his talk, Varnell said that he, along with his sisters and cousins, all started creating baskets at a pretty young age. A few years ago, his grandmother told him to come over and she directed his attention toward one basket in particular.

“She pulls this basket,” Varnell recalled, pointing at the basket in a case in the exhibit, “and goes, ‘Do you remember this?’”

Varnell remembered saying it was a good-looking basket, and he asked her who made it. She replied it was made by him, and Varnell quickly thought of a use for it.

“You know what we could do,” he said to his grandmother , “I bet we could take it down to Sue Peters and sell it for another $300.”

The crowd that filled the exhibit room laughed as he reminded them that, of course, he didn’t want to sell it. He just “thought it was funny.”

Varnell pointed out a number of pieces that he has a connection with — with the artist or the piece itself. He then turned the crowd’s attention to a piece done by him called “Tlaan chaagut’ ‘aang,” which shows a piece of plywood with colored pencil and graphic drawings that has several large holes riddled throughout it.

He explained while making the piece, he picked up a hammer and put a hole through the plywood. Then he did it again, and he kept doing it. Varnell then took cedar bark rope and began somewhat sewing it back together.

After describing the piece in what he believed was a thorough enough explanation, after 15 minutes of talking, Varnell decided he was finished with the event.

“Questions?” he asked the crowd. “Can I leave?”

Following their laughter, the group did have some questions. One woman asked what instigated him to put a hammer to his piece. Varnell hesitated for about a minute, and then she asked him another question.

“Were you angry?” she asked.

“No,” Varnell replied immediately. “I think I was seeing what was around me, I was seeing what was going on.”

“And yeah,” he later added. “There were some personal things in my life that probably I wasn’t addressing. It’s strange how these things come out with my pieces.”

Varnell pointed out he didn’t know how far he would go with taking a hammer to it, so he got on the phone with his friend, Stephen Jackson, who was in New York. Jackson told him to not stop creating holes and he thought it was a good idea.

“Whatever mood I was in,” Varnell said,” I’m certainly not in it now. I don’t want to start crying or anything.”

Varnell’s work, along with dozens of others, can be seen in the “upholding balance” exhibit at the Tongass Historical Museum until March 17. He also has a solo exhibit coming to the Main Street Gallery in April. Next year, Varnell’s work will be featured in a solo exhibit that will be at the Alaska State Museum on Feb. 1, 2019.