Skagway’s Artistic Heritage
Skagway has long been known as the “Gateway to the Klondike” referring to its strategic position to access the gold fields of the Yukon during the gold rush of 1896-1899. One important aspect of Skagway that has escaped most people’s attention is the depth and quality of its many artists and craftspeople.
This small southeast Alaska community has a strong tradition of art, dating back many centuries to the era of it’s original settlers, the Tlingit (clingk-it). The distinctive art of the Tlingit is reflective of their culture, ancestry, and collective histories. Detailed art was incorporated into almost all aspects of life, including house fronts, screens, totem poles, ceremonial staffs, hats and blankets, paddles and canoes, storage and eating utensils, and weapons. Carving is by far the largest example of Tlingit artwork seen, with a wide variance of materials used to create intricate pieces.
Skagway’s European art tradition goes back to the gold rush days. During the hustle and bustle of the stampede there existed a small number of artists/craftspeople who made a living creating and selling their work. Herman Kirmse opened a jewelry store in 1897 and his jewelry creations in gold, Alaskan ivory, and silver became world renowned and he won several awards at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909. At the turn of the century there was a furniture maker, and the music publishing house of Latimer Musigraph had artists on staff such as, photographers, etchers, designers and engravers. The house also produced half-tone and line-cut works including maps. Painters such as Vic Sparks continued to keep this artistic energy strong well into the 50’s and 60’s.
Skagway’s Contemporary Art
The closing of the railroad in 1982 led to a significant change in Skagway’s economy. The town moved from being a transshipment hub to a tourist destination. This led to a transformation of the arts in Skagway from being a small part of the economy to eventually becoming a significant sector in itself. Today, the art and crafts produced are many and varied, encompassing a broad variety of mediums and traditions, while the artists themselves come from as varied a background as the art they produce. The many different forms include candle making, skin care products, culinary treats, wood carving, ivory carving, painting, drawing, photography, ceramics, jewelry making, corset design and making, quilting, silk scarves, glass fusion, bead making, stained glass, and fine furniture & cabinetry. With as much variety as this, you will always find something you like.
With such a rich history of art culture in Skagway, the Skagway Development Corporation became committed to helping increase exposure and sales of locally made products as an avenue to boost the local economy. Our efforts were further validated when the Southeast Conference came out with their September 2014 report, “The Arts Economy of Southeast Alaska”, which placed Skagway as having the second highest-earning self-employed artists in the region. With a successful artistic community, full of many talented individuals, the Made in Skagway program was brought to life.