Klukwan artist Lani Hotch was honored with a United States Artists award this year for her contributions to the field of traditional arts. She is one of fifty artists across many disciplines to receive the honor.
Warm light floods the upstairs room where Lani Hotch weaves. Robes and regalia that she’s made are laid over a daybed; their colors and patterns seem to move under the eye. Her loom stands like a sentinel on the back wall. Outside, the Chilkat River glows silver under the snow.
Hotch lifts a black robe with blue, gray, and white patterns and runs her hand along a fringe of beads.
“When I walk it makes the sound of water,” she says.
The robe is part of her traditional regalia and the second of nearly a dozen major works she has woven or helped to weave.
“When we wear regalia, it’s to show who we are,” says Hotch.
“And because I was born in Klukwan, straight across the street next to this river, I really identify with it with the river and feel very connected to it. It’s part of who I am.”
The colors and shapes of her regalia are the those of the river. She runs her fingers over intricate patterns in the weave.
“This is the backbone of the salmon. This is the hooligan dip net pattern… This represents the river itself, the zigzag pattern here…”
It’s this work, and the stories that are woven into Hotch’s robes, that earned her a fellowship for visionary work in traditional arts. This year’s United States Artists award is intended to thank makers for their contributions to culture and community. She found out she won this August, but had to keep the news a secret until now.
“They told me I couldn’t tell anybody!” she laughed.
“It was so hard. I had to completely put it out of my mind, so I wouldn’t be tempted to tell people.”
A life’s work recognized
Hotch is not only a weaver, but a teacher of weaving and textile arts. The table next to her loom is piled with materials for a moccasin class she will teach this weekend—smoky smelling leather, glistening fur, colorful glass beads.
Her work has been shown in internationally and in regional galleries. She was also instrumental in the creation of the local Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center, which houses both contemporary and centuries old local art from Tlingit artists in Klukwan. It’s existence means pieces of cultural heritage that might otherwise be dispersed in museums across the nation can stay in the Chilkat Valley where they were created.
The fellowship honor comes with week-long retreat at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan and a $50,000 cash award to be spent at her discretion.
“I’m 63 years old now and I need to be thinking about, you know, how long am I going to be able to keep going. And so all these years I’ve been working on building up the community, I really have not given any thought to my own needs like retirement,” she explained.
Whitney Stoepel-Brewer runs communications for United States Artists. She says that’s exactly what the money is for. The award is unique in that the money is completely unrestricted.
The fellowship program began in 2006 when a handful of philanthropic organizations rallied around a single statistic: the Urban Institute found that while 96% of Americans valued art in their life, only about a quarter of them valued artists.
“We really believe in funding individual artists and the work they make really contributes to their communities. But we really focus on the well being of the artist themselves,” Stoepel-Brewer said.
To be named a fellow, you have to be nominated. Once United States Artists accepts the nomination, they invite the nominee to apply. Hotch has been nominated before, but this is the first time she’s been selected. Her application was chosen from among about 700 others.
Tradition, stitch by stitch
Back in Klukwan, Hotch’s fingers move deftly over dozens of hanging strands–the warp and the weft. Each bend of her wrist and twist of her fingers is one stitch. She demonstrates a technique called “interlock join,” where two colors meet in the design and lock together. Only over the course of hundreds of hours of weaving will the patterns emerge.
It’s not only Hotch’s story in her textiles. She is the fourth generation of weavers in her family. Her daughters are the fifth. A black and white photograph of her mother and her grandmother hangs over the loom.
“The sewing, the weaving… it’s very gratifying,” she said with a smile.
“I mean, to me, you know, I can’t fix all the problems in the world, but I can bloom where I’m planted. I can make this little area more beautiful somehow, you know, with artwork. That adds to our quality of life. Don’t you think?”
As her fingers move in and out of the yarn, it’s easy to imagine her mother’s and her grandmother’s hands. They blend the warp and the weft from something raw into something whole, each fiber part of the tradition that flows through Hotch’s life like the river out the window, almost silent in the winter light.