Alaska Native Tlingit artist collaborates with big brands

The collaboration includes brand names like Vans, Lib Tech Snowboards, SmartWool, Volcom, and Google
James Johnson is an award-winning Tlingit artist and carver who is taking Tlingit art to places it’s never been before, all while embracing his heritage.
Published: Nov. 28, 2022 at 6:05 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - James Johnson is an Alaska Native artist who was born and raised in Juneau. The Tlingit creator now resides in the Lower 48 but through his work, he’s been noticed by some pretty big companies geared, in some ways, toward Alaskans.

Johnson is an award-winning Tlingit artist and carver who is taking Tlingit art to places it’s never been before, all while embracing his heritage and honoring his ancestors through his work.

“The art form was completely integrated as a part of our way of life, and it tells a story of our people, that this is who we are, this is where we came from,” Johnson said. “Again, like to learn it just takes years and years of doing it, and it’s not like a hobby you do, you can’t dabble in it.

“You dedicate your whole life to the art form and carrying it forward and that’s exactly what I’ve done and what I’m doing.”

The traditional Tlingit art form is one that goes back thousands of years. The foundation for it is called form line, and it is comprised of all the visual or painted images seen on traditional art. Johnson says learning it takes years of studying and practice.

Over time, he has honed the craft that his ancestors in Southeast Alaska knew so well, and now, it has led Johnson to connect with brand giants such as Vans, Lib Tech Snowboards, Volcom, Smartwool, Yeti, Google and more. The theme of the Vans collection is the story of Raven releasing the sun into the sky.

“That’s a traditional old Tlingit history of how Raven brought light into the world and with Vans we wanted to tell that story through the collection,” he said.

Working with companies, he said, is an added benefit — his true passion is caring for his culture and its traditions by doing these traditional pieces, and being able to give back through that.

“We donated a portion of the proceeds for the collection back to my tribe in Alaska,” Johnson said. “And that money is going to help fund Native youth programs amongst my people and I’m really proud of that.”

Due to colonization of Southeast cultures generations ago, many traditional art pieces have been lost, but Johnson has been able to find them again, and give them new life.

“What I’ve dedicated my life to is pursuing that art form and picking up those broken pieces we have left and putting them back together the best way that we know how to and moving forward,” he said. “... I’m going to be doing this until I physically can’t do it anymore.”