Carving out a business in Tlingit culture

Artist Mark Preston has never seen his latest creation, a carved glass hat selling for $6,000 at a Vancouver Gallery. He's never even touched it. "I didn't have to carve it," said the Dawson-born artist.

Artist Mark Preston has never seen his latest creation, a carved glass hat selling for $6,000 at a Vancouver Gallery.

He’s never even touched it.

“I didn’t have to carve it,” said the Dawson-born artist. Instead, using a computer program, he sent off the design to glassmakers and sandblasters who created the work for him.

“Some might say that’s not creating,” said Preston, pulling up a bracelet design on his black netbook at the Westmark Whitehorse early Tuesday morning.

But it’s paying Preston’s bills.

Another of his designs will be carved in a nine-by-six-foot piece of wood above a Tofino, BC, fireplace. Using a computer program, the work will be done by router. Preston won’t be there.

“It’s all about creating,” he said. “It’s not necessarily about who’s creating.”

Juxtaposing technology and tradition, Preston has managed to carve a lucrative chunk out of his Tlingit heritage, a coastal First Nation background he didn’t know he shared until his early 20s.

Growing up in Dawson and later Carmacks, the young white boy with the dark shock of hair found himself fighting for an identity he didn’t recognize.

“When kids push you, you either fall down and start crying, or you stand up and face the wind,” said Preston, who later learned his absent father was Irish and his mom had Tlingit roots.

When he was a little boy, his mom kept him busy with a pen and paper while she did housework, and he found solace in the drawings. It wasn’t until later, when he realized his native ancestry, that Preston turned to Tlingit designs.

But, as a young man, he still struggled to forge an identity.

Learning his trade by trial and error, Preston remembers returning to Dawson in his late teens to visit the house where he grew up, a charming old place with garrets, dormers and turrets. It was owned by a “plump white woman with grey hair and pale skin” known as Bombay Peggy, who was “a little rough around the edges.”

While hanging around Dawson, he met his first real artist, a woman named Edith Jerome who made a living painting gold pans. Eager to help out with the painting, Preston followed Jerome to Faro’s Farrago Festival to peddle her wares. There, wandering around the art exhibits, the young man saw an interesting image created using dots—a style he later learned was called pointillism.

It stuck, and when he came back to Whitehorse and happened upon a photo of Wigwam Harry taken by Jim Robb, Preston copied the image using pointillism. The piece was hanging in a local gallery, when Jim Robb spotted it.

“I had no idea about copyright,” said Preston. At least, not until Jim Robb schooled him.

“Take it off the wall and sell it if you can,” the Yukon artist told his young subject, a twinkle in his eye.

With art still in mind, Preston ended up in graphic design at Arctic Star Printing. A co-worker later pushed him to study art, but after a year at a Victoria, BC, school he was back in the Yukon working for Native Northern Broadcasting and dreaming of being a TV editor.

“I saw that all the students’ work was starting to look like the teacher’s,” he said of his Victoria experience. “So I thought it was time to get out and continue exploring on my own.”

It wasn’t long until Native Northern Broadcasting’s executive director recognized Preston’s artistic talent and had him creating work for the station, including the logo it’s still using today.

There wasn’t much in terms of artistic inspiration in the North at the time, and Preston remembers hitchhiking to Vancouver more than once to explore the museums and galleries.

Then, the Society of Yukon Artists of Native Ancestry brought up a master carver and Preston was hooked. Applying for funding, he enrolled in a four-year carving program in Hazelton, BC. He left less than a year later, his Utopian vision of the art world shattered.

Learning to carve wood all day, he trained in the evening on silver with Phil Janze, the master carver he’d met years earlier in the Yukon. And although he excelled in the program, Preston wasn’t popular with his First Nation classmates.

“I thought art was about promoting peace, knowledge and imparting change,” said Preston. “But instead there was lots of bickering and gossip,” mostly concerning the white-half breed that was so good at making native art.

Non-natives have no place making First Nation art, said Preston. And if he didn’t have Tlingit roots, he wouldn’t be doing it.

“It’d be morally wrong,” he said. “Art is about preserving culture and identity, it shouldn’t be watered down and manufactured as some product.”

This is dangerous ground for an artist who’s creating $6,000 works of art without even seeing them, and who regularly mingles business with inspiration.

For example, Preston works with silver more often than wood because there’s a better market for jewelry than there is for masks.

“With wood, lots of artists are already doing it and with one mask going for $4,000, it’s a higher ticket item with not many people lined up for that,” he said. “Jewelry is more appealing to a wider range of people.”

Preston’s business acumen also keeps his politics on the backburner.

“You can’t pay the rent with political statements unless you become a professional grant chaser,” he said.

Instead, he’s trying a more oblique, gentler approach, like etching eagles on frosted glass boxes filled with river pebbles.

Eagles, salmon and people are interconnected, he said. “The salmon are a metaphor for our very existence—what happens to them is going to happen to us.”

Looking at Preston’s clean, wide salmon, raven and eagle designs, it’s easy to see why the artist never tires of them.

“I could draw a raven my whole life and no two will be alike,” he said.

Monotony, for Preston, is a nine-to-five job. “I’d be a dead soul,” he said. But drawing endless ravens puts him in a state of artistic bliss.

And although Preston has supported himself with his art for the past 10 years, he still wakes up scared in the morning.

“But it’s an exciting scary,” he said. “It’s like waking up and knowing you are about to go downhill skiing – that unpredictable future in front of me keeps me alive.”

Mark Preston’s first solo Yukon show opens at Arts Underground on Friday at 5 p.m. The show runs until February 3.

Contact Genesee Keevil at