David A. Boxley: "Art is evolutionary"

Northwest Coast native peoples are producing astonishing art
Steven R. Lorton

Born in 1952, David A. Boxley was raised by his grandparents in the Tsimshian village of Metlakatla, Alaska, and graduated from Seattle Pacific University. In 1979, Boxley began carving, and in 1986 he began earning a living as an artist. Boxley now lives in the Seattle area with his two sons, David R. and Zach. With 58 totem poles to his credit―as well as steamed bentwood boxes, bowls, rattles, screens, panels, and masks―Boxley is known and collected in the Northwest and internationally.

Q: Why did you begin to carve?

A: I painted with oil for years using historical ideas, trying to get a grasp of how my people lived, what they were like. Then I bought some tools, borrowed some, and started copying things out of old photographs.

Q: Did you take to it quickly?

A: I studied many, many, many totem poles. In time my work started to look like the old pieces. I feel that my carving is a new style based on the traditional stuff. I call it Alaskan Tsimshian.

Q: Isn't that how Northwest Coast carving evolved―tradition coupled with individual style?

A: All art is evolutionary. Every artist brings something new to the form. Even though our art has its rules, there's room for innovation once the artist is grounded in the tradition.

I'm very proud that my sons have taken up what I do and are now moving on and making their own impact. My older son [David R.] is a phenomenal painter and carver. He carries my name, but he is making his own way. My younger son, Zach, is a great technician. He makes bentwood boxes and deerskin drums. His crafts are the way he speaks. Both of them sing and dance with me.

Q: Looking back on your life, what would you do differently?

A: I wish I'd have gotten started sooner and to have really known and understood the old artists and tribal elders that were around when I was young, including my grandparents.

Other than that, nothing.