Nicholas Galanin

(b. 1979)

Born in Sitka, Alaska, Nicholas Galanin has struck an intriguing balance between his origins and the course of his practice. Having trained extensively in ‘traditional’ as well as ‘contemporary’ approaches to art, he pursues them both in parallel paths. His stunning bodies of work simultaneously preserve his culture and explore new perceptual territory.

Galanin comes from a long line of Northwest Coast artists – starting with his great-grandfather, who sculpted in wood, down through his father, who works in both precious metal and stone. Although Galanin’s parents separated when he was a child, he continued to spend important time with his father, especially working together in the studio. The artist looks back on those experiences now as a “very memorable part of [his] childhood” – as this sharing of art became a potent link to his heritage and a vehicle of cultural identity.

Having always had an interest in creating, Galanin took on apprenticeships at an early age – first with his father and his uncle, then with other local, traditional artists. When he was about 18, he began to feel the strain of being pulled in two directions – working a day-job, with its requisite frustrations and energy drain, while simultaneously apprenticing in the arts. At that point he realized that he needed to commit himself totally to art-making, or it “wasn’t going to happen.” From early craft courses, he went on to study at the London Guildhall University (in London, England from 2000 to 2003), where he received a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts with honors in Jewelry Design and Silversmithing.

Soon after, Galanin discovered a graduate arts program at Massey University in New Zealand that meshed perfectly with his interests and concerns, and in 2004 he began earning a Master’s degree there in Indigenous Visual Arts. The artist has commented that the Maori have established strong cultural programs, and that their initiatives are of tremendous interest to other indigenous groups.

After finishing his graduate coursework, Galanin moved back to Sitka, which, he says, is a very interesting place to be – particularly in terms of what is happening with Native culture. That atmosphere helps him maintain a dual focus, continuing to create objects that are ‘traditional’ (or ‘customary,’ as he tags them), while also making a separate body of work that is contemporary. Although especially drawn to sculpture and video, Galanin’s medium can be “pretty much anything.” He begins by developing a vigorous concept (often based in cultural issues), and then he finds a way to express it. This is important to him as a means of retaining control over his work, since he has had numerous encounters with gallerists, collectors, and others who want to impose their own demands on the kinds of objects he creates. Before the arrival of Europeans, Galanin comments, artists worked freely, determining their own trajectory; he wants to reclaim that autonomy for himself, as the direction of choice for true creativity.

Also gifted at working in video, Galanin has created a stunning piece titled Who We Are – in which single frames of 25,000 traditional Northwest Coast objects are collapsed into a 15-minute video loop. Silently flashing before the viewer, individual objects are impossible to separate from the diluvian flow. The speed of the piece, and its overload of images, evokes the superficiality of contemporary life, in which complex phenomena are reduced to sound-bytes or media spots. By arranging the art-works according to formal similarities, Galanin makes “categories of objects, such as baskets and bowls, gradually morph into each other” (Aldrich 2006). Fascinating though they are, the flickering transformations create a disturbing sense of moving all too fast, with forms melting into each other at a rate that defies comprehension or control.