Infrared photography reveals centuries-old formline paintings on Lingít bentwood boxes

A man in a jacket stands in a museum.
Zachary James is the collections coordinator at the Haines Sheldon Museum (Corinne Smith/KHNS)

Several traditional Lingít bentwood boxes make up part of the Haines Sheldon Museum’s 23,000 item collection.

Handmade out of cedar wood and painted, the boxes were used for storage or traded goods, said museum collections coordinator Zachary James.

“These ones I think were probably used for regalia, because they have really nice paintings on them,” he said. “But they were general purpose storage boxes, too.”

James is Lingít, with ancestry in Wrangell and the Stikine Basin as well as the Chilkat Valley. And he has an active interest in Lingít art and heritage, especially new ways of looking at pieces from the museum’s collection.

Recently, he used an infrared camera to photograph the traditional bentwood boxes, which date back to the 1800s, revealing paintings that have not been seen in perhaps 200 years.

“It just basically looks like a black surface on wood, and then these amazing images are able to be pulled out of it,” he said.

A museum display with an old, brown wooden box flanked by printed infrared images of formline paintings
James hopes the bentwood boxes’ designs can inspire present-day artists (Corinne Smith/KHNS)

James said, over time, the boxes’ outside varnish had darkened, probably from soot or grime and storage conditions obscuring the original paintings. Some of the paintings were completely hidden. On others, you could see a faint outline.

“And if you look at it from the side, you can kind of see, or under certain light conditions, you can kind of see the design,” he said. “But you can’t really make it out very clearly.”

But by using an infrared lens on a digital camera, James was able to capture the striking formline images underneath.

“Normal light reflects off of the very outside,” he said. “The infrared light penetrates through the varnish and then bounces off the pigment or off of the wood and then reflects back. And so it has the ability to see through that kind of grime on the outside.”

Newly revealed formline paintings now on display in the Hakkinen gallery of the Haines Sheldon Museum (Corinne Smith/KHNS)

James said he got the idea from the book The Transforming Image: Painted Arts of Northwest Coast First Nations, a project of the University of British Columbia museum. The book features infrared photographs of many different Northwest Coast boxes and formline paintings.

“Things like killer whales, eagles and ravens and frogs and things like that are usually owned by a specific house or clan, so things with those kinds of designs weren’t generally traded amongst other people,” James said. “So they would make these abstract designs, and that way it was OK to trade amongst different people or use it for basically resale. This was before the adoption of currency or basically colonial culture or anything like that Western culture with money.”

For James, it was an exciting reveal.

“It’s probably the first time in a couple of hundred years that these designs and these pieces of art have even been able to be appreciated or looked at,” he said. “So I felt like it was good to see it again.”

Haines Sheldon Museum board president Kelleen Adams says James’ initiative, and the project, is valuable for the community.

“It’s such a treasure to have these in Haines,” Adams said. “And for Zach to come up with this idea, to bring this artwork to life, to show people what has been beneath that for hundreds of years, it’s amazing. So we are very fortunate to be able to witness this.”

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Side-by-side infrared images showing two formline paintings from one box
One side of this box was painted with a circle (Corinne Smith/KHNS)

James said the newly revealed designs are significant to the larger project of recovering and protecting the Lingít heritage of the Chilkat Valley, and Southeast Alaska.

“Constantly, Native art has been taken out of Native hands and put in European or American institutions. I mean, there’s Lingít art from this valley in Russia and Germany and all over,” James said. “We have no idea what’s in private hands, what was lost over the years. So every scrap of information about the Lingít art forms that we can draw from is important.”

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