Tlingit Formline, Symmetry, Symbol, and an Unusual Exercise

One of the characteristics of Tlingit formline is symmetry.  The designs on the boxes below are good examples of symmetry. You could trace one half of the design and flip it over to create the other half. Bentwood box designs are fairly abstract and almost always symmetrical. But more realistic designs can also be symmetrical.

Tlingit cedar box (22928996829)


Some box designs occasionally have a design that actually wrap around the box. One half of the design is on one side, and the other half is on the next side of the box.

I did my February 3 Daily Sketch with reflections and box designs in mind, but with a little twist. The designs are not mirror images:

Tlingit Formline split imageTlingit Formline split image Robert Davis Hoffmann

Split Image?

Another characteristic of our Tlingit art is symbolic meaning. Much of our art represents clan crests or clan stories. They are symbolic in that sense. There is the other symbolism in which a design stands for a concept (see earlier blog post) such as theft, wealth, peace.

In my Daily Sketch for February 4 I thought of the biblical passage that says, “First remove the beam out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother’s eye.” It’s an unfinished piece, but maybe I’ll paint it someday.

Tlingit Abstract Art Robert Davis Hoffmann

Beam in Eye

Another characteristic of formline is transitional devices. The formline shapes transition and connect with each other in a way that the formline is continuous. Back in 1974, I took an art class from a Tlingit elder, A.P. Johnson at Sheldon Jackson College. He explained that if you traced a finger on any part of a design it would be like following a continuous maze.

With that in mind, my February 5 exercise was to try not to lift my pencil from the paper. This is what I came up with.

Tlingit Abstract Art Robert Davis Hoffmann

A Maze

When I’m doing more experimental sketches I give myself permission to bend or break some of the more rigid rules of classic formline. That frees me up to be as creative as I wish. See my other blog on “My Native Art: Regarding Obligations and Social Pressures.”

And check out my Resources page too.

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