Chilkat weaver Sainteen Anna Brown Ehlers has been named the 2023 Rasmuson Distinguished Artist.
The Juneau artist said she plans to use the $50,000 award to weave the biggest Chilkat blanket ever.
“Everything I’ve done is the largest ever done,” she said. “The killer whale blanket I have down at the Alaska State Museum and Archives now is 8 feet wide and 7 feet high. It took me a year to split the yellow cedar bark and spin the wool for that.”
That killer whale blanket took 8,000 hours to weave, she said. That’s the equivalent of about 11 months of nonstop work. She said she hopes to weave a blanket twice that size.
Ehlers had already been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts. But she said that awards from Alaskans mean more to her.
“Being recognized nationally is nice,” Ehlers said, “But being recognized by the people of the state, it’s more fulfilling to me.”
Ehlers has woven several dozen blankets over the last 40 years, and she’s taught hundreds of students. She said she learned from two weavers, Dorica Jackson and Jennie Thlunaut. Thlunaut was 92 at the time.
“I watched her weaving when I was a little girl,” Ehlers said. “And since I was four years old, I knew that this is what I wanted to do with my life.”
Her father told her that she would have to earn mentorship from Thlunaut, though. Ehlers said she brought wool that sheʼd spun to Klukwan to show her, and then Thlunaut began teaching her how to weave in her style. Ehlers finished a child-sized blanket under her guidance.
“I went back up there and showed her, and she said, ‘Youʼre just like me, youʼre just like me!’ She was just so happy,” Ehlers said.
For potential young weavers, Ehlers said they shouldn’t let the enormity of the tradition hold them back.
“Follow your heart,” she said. “Don’t let anybody diminish your dreams. Start small. You know, everything starts small.”
Ehlers said she couldnʼt do her work without her familyʼs help. Her husband renovated their house to build her a studio, and her daughters spin wool for her.
Rasmuson also awarded Juneau residents Lyndsey Brollini and Mistee St. Clair $10,000 each for a basketry and multimedia project and a poetry collection, respectively.