RioPro Profile: Janine Gibbons
With ancestors hailing from Finland and the ancient Haida people of Haida Gwaii, Alaska native Janine Gibbons is a born storyteller. As a Haida Raven of the Double-Finned Killer Whale Clan, Brown Bear House, Janine credits her indigenous heritage for her impressive work ethic and respect for the earth. She says Haida culture is based around meaning, respect and reciprocity; you give and receive gifts a lot, always trying to be kind, generous and thoughtful of others. This way of life has taught Janine to have a lot of pride and good intention in what she creates. She is always trying to create beauty and connection that will lift peoples’ spirits.
While pursuing a college degree in elementary education, she began experiencing frequent seizures that prohibited her from completing her degree. Janine had always had a love for jewelry, but after taking her first jewelry class at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, she decided to make a career of it. Starting out with beading, wire wrapping, and silver work, she eventually made her way into enameling, which is what she is now widely recognized for.
Drawing on inspiration from her ocean heritage, Janine’s enamel work is reminiscent of biomorphic forms in nature. While maintaining an active jewelry studio practice in Alaska, Janine also works as a photographer, sculptor, painter and as an illustrator for children’s books about the indigenous cultures of the Haida and Tlingit people of the Northwest Coast of North America.
Rio Grande: You studied several different subjects in college. What was it about jewelry making that caught your interest?
Janine: When I was little, my grandmother was a bush pilot, and she passed away in an airplane accident. We are Haida and Finnish, from my mom’s side of the family. Part of what they did when someone died was they would get rid of that person’s belongings so that you wouldn’t be reminded of them. So, I didn’t have a lot of things of my grandmothers, but I did have some beadwork that she had done. She had this really beautiful belt that she had hand woven and then a few other things that were her pieces of jewelry. And so, for me, jewelry brought me closer to my grandmother, and I always carried those things with me. Later, when I was in my early 20s, I worked on cruise ships, and the only thing that I could wear with my uniform were earrings. Whenever I would travel into different ports, I would buy earrings. Jewelry always meant so much to me and had so much association with place and people. For me, it’s really about storytelling.
Rio Grande: Can you tell us about your enameling technique?
Janine: It kind of happened by mistake and then I loved it. I was trying to show and explain my process to someone and I accidentally mixed up my enamel layers and that’s how I ended up developing my own technique. I usually use about seven different colors in my enamel. I mix tansparents and opaques, and when I combine them and layer, they take on this biomorphic quality. I also make a lot of marks in the enamel when it’s dry. You really have to be in tune with color as well. Color theory is really important in enamel.
Rio Grande: At one time your jewelry was sold in the Smithsonian Renwick Gallery Store, as well as in over 100 other shops! What’s your secret to being so successful in getting your work out there and in so many retail locations?
Janine: It took a really long time. I just had to learn the hard way. I had to try to figure out who to contact and go into stores and get doors shut on me. I didn’t ever have a leg up in any way whatsoever, and so I learned through figuring it out myself. I tried for 15 years to get my work into the Sundance catalog. One year I finally ended up getting accepted, only to find out later, after jumping through so many hoops, that they ran out of room in their catalog. But that experience made me such a better artist because I pushed myself for so long towards that goal and it made my work better. But, I’m not in all those stores anymore. I wasn’t treated like a human. I’ve done every part of sales, wholesale, retail, trade shows, trunk shows, and online sales. I’ve gone through all of that. I really enjoy working directly with the people who are actually wearing my jewelry rather than store owners. All of those things are necessary for people to experience because they give you perspective. The only way you get perspective is by getting your heart broken or having someone yell at you and then also meeting people that love you and love what you do. It’s all important and it’s all necessary.
Rio Grande: You’re a single mom. How do you manage to be so productive in your studio?
Janine: You have to get up really early. I would get up at 4am and do yoga. Yoga is really important. Especially with enameling, because your body hurts. Usually it’s in the wee hours of the morning when I really get the creative time in. If there are things that require less creative energy, monotonous things like making earring backs or head pins, I would do that during the day when the kids are awake. We all balance all these different metaphorical hands and then sometimes we don’t know how it’s going to play out. I just trust that it will all come together. I do what I love and trust my instincts and I just keep creating. Being an entrepreneur, there’s at least a hundred different things you have to do at once, and so I think that it’s just like a different language. It’s like being a mother for instance; you have to multitask like crazy. Jewelry making and art creation is just like being a mom.
Rio Grande: What would you say your biggest struggle is as an artist and jeweler?
Janine: Just being able to be myself and fit with societal norms. Being able to be creative and say how I feel, and express how I come to know these things—that has been hard. But now I’m 40 and I’ve been divorced. I’m a single mom; obviously I’ve been through a gazillion different things and now it’s easier for me to just say it like it is. When you’re an artist, you always have to sell yourself. And honestly selling and promoting yourself that way is not part of indigenous culture. Part of indigenous culture is being modest and humble, just letting your work speak for itself. It’s storytelling too, you have to get comfortable telling your story and it’s not easy. I’ve never met anyone who was comfortable with constantly talking about themselves, which as an artist you have to do. It has taken me a really long time to get comfortable selling myself because then you also have to get comfortable dealing with critique.
Rio Grande: What tool in your studio could you not live without?
Janine: Something that’s really important to me is good clippers. A really nice pair of Lindstrom wire cutters was an extravagance for me, and now it’s something I can’t live without. And the kiln obviously is something that’s really important to me. Also, good tweezers!
Rio Grande: Do you have any advice you would like to share with other jewelers?
Janine: Just keep going. There are going to be so many times where you are crying, and having self-doubt, there will be periods where you have to take a break. Just know that nothing is permanent; change will happen. Look at the things that are sad— those are things that really change how you make things, like when people are copying your work, just use that as a learning opportunity. Think about how you can make it different so they can’t copy your work. That’s really what you have to do and it doesn’t come over night; it only comes when you keep going and keep working. Have good intentions. Remember in the end it’s about creating. Jewelry will be around forever, it has permanence; it’s going to be handed down through generations. That’s the really cool thing about being a jewelry maker. We are making wearable art and it really does impact people and our lives and what we feel about ourselves. People notice when you wear jewelry and they compliment it and it feels good. Jewelry just feels good when you have the right piece, it’s is so powerful like that, it just makes an impact wherever you go. Keep making jewelry, make sure it has good energy, and make sure you enjoy making it.
WHERE WOMEN CREATE summer 2018
WHERE WOMEN CREATE : WORK summer 2018
Art as a means to Self-Discovery
Council of the Haida Nation - Haida LAAS
By Rhonda Lee McIsaac
February 15, 2018
Janine Gibbons, a Haida illustrator from Petersburg Alaska recently came to Haida Gwaii to share her illustrations from two children’s books; The Woman Who Married a Bear and The Woman Carried Away by Killer Whales. Both stories have roots in Haida and Tlingit oral traditions and are illustrated and adapted for young children. One young reader, a baby, and 15 adults jammed into the Queen Charlotte Senior Centre beside the Queen Charlotte Public Library to listen and learn about the Gibbons’ illustrations and books.
The path to an artistic career has had many side trails, Gibbons said.
My Mom wanted me to be a heavy equipment operator, which was a more viable career choice, she figured but instead she went on to earn a travel degree, became a deck hand and earned a Mate’s ticket, Gibbons said. When she was done with the ocean, Gibbons went and studied in Colorado to become an elementary school teacher. Health issues prevented her from completing her teaching degree and she then turned toward art classes. Not just any art classes but “like Indian Arts and Crafts” she says with incredulous laughter coming from the gathered crowd. “But I made money!” she said, and then explored painting and jewelry making to fill out her artistic career.
Sealaska Heritage Institute hired Gibbons to illustrate two books. She said how the turnaround time for the grants was a challenge; seven months for the first book and only two months for the second. It was about doing the best I could with the skills I had, she said, while drawing attention to the lack of Northwest form line in her illustrations.
The stories she illustrated in those two books were oral stories that were being adapted for children’s picture books. Language revitalization was key to the content required by Sealaska Heritage Institute.
In her work, Gibbons seeks to make the connections between the past and the present by using her personal experiences. Like the fact that her grandmother; Helen Todd, was the first commercial female bush pilot flying across Alaska. Or that Helen Todd’s Haida sister, Marguerite Fiorella was the first Haida to be trained to fly in Alaska. In one haunting illustration, Gibbons painted a bear entering the woods as homage to Todd who died on a forested lakeside.
When Gibbons was new to illustrating, she found the bigger she painted the more detail she could put into a painting. Sealaska Heritage Institute also saw the merit of making the children’s books larger than planned. The photos are richer, Gibbons said as she turned the page to show off the centerfold of bear eyes that seemed to jump off the page. The originals are painted on larger-than-life primed wood panels that when photographed pop from the page. The original works will be part of a show later this spring.
The combination of Gibbons skill, photography, and the publishing genius of Baby Raven Reads have resulted in award winning books. The audiences for the illustrated books are five and under, although she illustrates them so that adults can enjoy them too.
Gibbons believes in the power of her art and has donated the cover pieces to auction. The book covers feature carved poles and Haida and Tlingit artists like Donald Varnell. Gibbons will be busy with new illustrations in the upcoming year for another book to be released by Sealaska Heritage Institute.
Painting her way home
Haida Gwaii Observer
By Andrew Hudson
January 19, 2018
Janine Gibbons grew up with stories about her bush-pilot nonni, but not her Haida heritage.
“I knew I was Haida,” Gibbons said, who grew up in Petersburg, Alaska.
“I didn’t know what that meant at all.”
But while illustrating a new children’s book, The Woman Carried Away by Killer Whales, Gibbons got a chance to fill in the picture of her own Haida heritage, and share it with the next generation.
Published by Baby Raven Reads, an award-winning literacy program of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, the book tells the Haida story of sea hunter Naa-Naa-Simgat, who rescued his wife from a supernatural killer whale at the bottom of the sea.
Gibbons also illustrated The Woman Who Married the Bear, a book in the same series that tells the Tlingit version of a story well known to Haidas as well. Both are intended for children ages five and younger.
“I wanted make sure that in each and every page there was something they could learn from,” said Gibbons, speaking at a reading in Queen Charlotte hosted by Literacy Haida Gwaii.
One of her opening illustrations shows a couple’s clasped hands, and on their hands Gibbons painted traditional tattoos. One of the book covers shows a real totem pole by Donald Varnell, and Gibbons insisted on painting it as it looked the day she saw it — half-finished, with adze marks still showing in the cedar.
To get the face-painting right in one scene from The Woman Who Married the Bear, Gibbons used an old photograph that a missionary took of a group of Haida women — a photo of the last time he allowed them to do put on their traditional face painting and regalia.
“Every time I see that picture, it makes me feel,” Gibbons said. “It’s like, ‘Say cheese! We’re taking everything away.’”
Still another scene shows kids tucked in bed after listening to a story, and sharp-eyed readers will notice that their pillow cases are decorated with the leaves of plants actually found in Haida Gwaii forests.
And Haida Gwaii readers might just recognize one of the orcas painted in The Woman Carried Away by Killer Whales, which Gibbons based on a photo that a friend took of one breaching in Skidegate Inlet. Fans of the Skidegate Saints might even recognize a few faces around the fire when Naa-Naa-Simgat travels to the undersea Killer Whale House — Gibbons modelled the characters on a shot of the men’s basketball team.
Of the dozens of images that Gibbons drew from Haida Gwaii, from visits to the Vancouver Museum of Anthropology, the Burke Museum in Seattle, or the kelp bed just outside her house in Petersburg, one at the close of The Woman Who Married the Bear shows a dying bear slipping into the woods, nearly unseen among the trees.
Gibbons painted it as an homage to her Haida grandmother, Helen Todd, who was just 40 when she died after her bush plane crashed on a glassy lake in the middle of Annette Island (The nearby Tsimshian community named the lake in her honour).
Just before the crash, Todd wrote in a letter about a dream she had, of following her father as he slipped into a cedar forest.
While the story of Naa-Naa-Simgat may be new to her, Gibbons did grow up with the legend of her grandmother — a woman who got Ketchikan’s “biggest buck” hunting contest cancelled after winning it so many years in a row. Not only was she a pilot in the 1950s, when female pilots were a rare thing, she would fly away for weeks at a time, checking her remote traplines for beaver, wolf and marten.
That convention-bucking attitude seems to be alive and well in Gibbons’ approach to art.
“My mom did not want me to become an artist — she wanted me to drive heavy equipment,” she said.
Best known as a jewelry designer, Gibbons uses a unique enamelling technique that she taught herself.
And Gibbons was not shy to follow her instincts while doing her first book illustrations.
Rather than follow a suggestion to paint the unusual couple of The Woman Who Married the Bear together in a kitchen, Gibbons showed their feet and paws curled up in bed.
“This isn’t Berenstain Bears,” she said, laughing.
Likewise, toward the end of the book, Gibbons insisted on a picture with plenty of big, beautiful flowers.
“Wait a minute, if this is a story about women, I’m painting flowers,” she said. “We like flowers now, we liked flowers 10,000 years ago. We still like flowers.”
Copies of The Woman Who Married the Bear and The Woman Carried Away by Killer Whales are on order at the Haida Heritage Centre, and are also available through the website of the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Gibbons’ original paintings for both books will be on display in Juneau, Alaska during the next Celebration event, set for June 6 to 9.
Bringing a Petersburg artist’s Fleet together
Juneau Empire, Juneau, Alaska
By Chelsea Tremblay
Thursday, July 13, 2017
It happens fast. When the fishermen go to the grounds and leave empty harbor stalls, I find myself imagining Petersburg in the wintertime. I know! It’s too early! But part of a successful winter is laying groundwork in summer. Artist Janine Gibbons, originally from Petersburg, is renting a space in downtown Petersburg with exactly that in mind.
She’s calling it The Fleet. The details are still coming together, but she’s hoping to turn it into a collaborative art space to bring together community talent and resources for creative pursuits. Everyone’s invited. The shop stands at the corner of Main Street and Fram. It has two display windows, currently bedecked with a collection of flags interspersed with planters of flowers. The space stretches deep into the building where an office awaits.
We sat on two high-backed maroon armchairs in the front of the room, watching downtown traffic on a sunny day. Folks wearing name tags wandered to town from the small cruise ship. Fishermen prepared to head out. The door was open to let in sunshine and ease the oil paint smell that still lingered. Gibbons and a few helpers had just ripped out the old carpeting, then painted the walls and floor to prepare for the fresh start. The school’s surplus sale that week yielded chairs, tables and other supplies perfect for the burgeoning creative classroom. Surrounded by possibility, Gibbons told me how she got to this point.
The Fleet is part of a long path for the Petersburg-raised artist. Gibbons had always been creative, but was on track to become an elementary teacher. She began having seizures regularly, impacting her ability to fulfill the student teaching requirement. It was the only thing standing between her and the degree. But she paused school and started making art. The seizures stopped. After years of determination and assembling a hardworking team, as well as continuing her education, her glass enameled jewelry can be found in stores across Southeast Alaska and around the country. Eventually, something wasn’t right. Working on her paintings became a new source of inspiration, yet her new path still seemed opaque. Gibbons asked for a sign.
Then she got an email from Sealaska Heritage Institute, inquiring about her availability to do the artwork for two children’s books. She didn’t really have the time, not with a successful jewelry business to run, but she made it happen anyway.
“I haven’t slept since October,” she laughed, and I believe her. Her books, “The Woman Who Married a Bear” and “The Woman Carried Away by Killer Whales,” are illustrated adaptations of traditional stories. They’re part of Baby Raven Reads, an SHI program supporting language development, school readiness and pre-literacy for Alaska Native families. The extensive research and traveling she did to finish the books had her learning more about her Haida heritage.
“Each page of the book was me learning about my family,” Gibbons explained. The power of the stories came alive for her through trips like visiting the Haida artwork located in the Museum of Anthropology at University of British Columbia. “Before things just felt like words, but now they feel real.”
Part of that reality was reckoning with the generational trauma caused by colonization. “People endured so much they just stopped talking, they stopped telling stories. I mean, one ancestor went to her deathbed not wanting people to know she was Haida. What does a person have to experience for that to happen to them?” Gibbons asked. “But now people seem ready, you know? Like, there’s been enough pain. It’s time to tell stories again.”
She leaned forward in her chair, thinking about her ancestors. “Did they know that some of us would still be here to tell this story?”
Gibbons sees The Fleet as a place for anyone who has something to offer or is interested in learning.
“The space is about coming together. I don’t know everything, yet, but I would like to, and I think that together we can find a lot of answers.” Gibbons knows the value of mentorship; she credits Ketchikan artists Ray and Michelle Troll and Donald Varnell with giving her essential guidance as her art has developed over the years. Part of mentorship is knowing each person has the freedom to grow. Gibbons reminisced on the beginning of her time as an artist in Ketchikan, saying, “Oh my God you get to be unapologetically yourselves? I would really just like to help other people get that feeling too. To have someone who understands the creative process is pretty priceless.”
There’s quite a bit of work to do before The Fleet operates at full gear. But Gibbons has experience making things work when failure isn’t an option. “We can make this space whatever you want it to be. Even when it’s raining, if you have a good space to be in, who cares? Why not make Petersburg the place you always want to be? A space where everyone’s invited, no one’s excluded.” She also dreams of a gathering place to think about larger issues facing us. “We feel challenges globally, especially with things like ocean threats, so why can’t we be here, on the ocean, to think creatively about what’s happening? I mean, really. How can we save the world?”
Pike Place Market: My first published photograph! National Fisherman Magazine. November 2017.
(not a gold coin.... Malena Marvin...retract :) )
We're excited to invite you to support Petersburg, Alaska's Elizabeth Peratrovich Mural Project!
A collaboration between Petersburg Indian Association, Petersburg Arts Council, and others, this project honors Alaska Native civil rights hero Elizabeth Peratrovich with a public mural in downtown Petersburg, Alaska. A Tlingit born and raised in Petersburg, Peratrovich is credited with helping to pass Alaska's Anti-Discrimination Act. Her efforts are now honored with a state holiday and an upcoming commemorative $1 coin from the United States Treasury.
Our project celebrates Elizabeth Peratrovich in the community where she was born, educating residents and visitors while beautifying our town. Our muralist Janine Gibbons also grew up in Petersburg. A professional artist with Haida ancestry, Janine illustrated two of the acclaimed "Baby Raven Reads" children's booksreleased this year by Sealaska Heritage Institute. Our mural design is under development and your ideas are welcome! We plan to raise $10,000+ for site prep; paints & supplies; artist time to consult with the community, develop the design, and implement the project; and to establish a maintenance fun. Our site is quite large and we may need to do extensive preparation. Donations are tax deductible and will be held in a dedicated fund through Petersburg Arts Council. Questions and comments may be directed to Malena at Petersburg Arts Council/Petersburg Mural Society at 907.957.1007 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Checks can also be mailed to Petersburg Arts Council/PO Box 1648/Petersburg, AK/99833 with "Peratrovich Mural" in the note area.
Elizabeth Peratrovich was born on July 4th, 1911 in Petersburg, Alaska and lived here as a child. She went on to fight for the civil rights of Native Alaskans as a Native woman and is commonly credited with testimony to the Alaska Legislature that assured passage of Alaska’s Anti-Discrimination Act of 1944, 20 years previous to the passage of the US Civil Rights Act.
She is honored in Alaska through a day named in her honor, as well as a namesake park in Anchorage, chamber of the Alaska Legislature in Juneau, and theatre in Ketchikan. In 2020 she will be honored nationally with a commemorative $1 coin from the U.S. Treasury. Referencing her contributions, Alaska's Governor Bill Walker stated: “Elizabeth and Roy Peratrovich stood up to fight the unfair, inhumane, and degrading treatment of Alaska Native Peoples, and their efforts towards positive change reverberate to this day.”
There is not yet a prominent plaque, statuary or mural of her legacy in her birthplace of Petersburg. Indigenous habitation of Mitkof Island extends back many thousands of years and contemporary Tlingit (and Haida) communities, along with European settlers, helped to develop the town. Petersburg has a strong arts community and existing public murals celebrate local marine life and the fishing industry. The visitor industry is a growing sector of Petersburg’s economy, and there are few public opportunities for visitors to learn about Petersburg’s Alaska Native heritage. A large-scale mural will involve Petersburg’s arts community in creating an opportunity for residents and visitors to honor and learn more about Elizabeth Peratrovich and Alaska Native civil rights history. We hope that the painting of the mural may also encourage Governor Walker to celebrate the release of the 2020 Peratrovich coin here in Petersburg!