National Endowment for the Arts Statement on the Death of Clarissa Rizal, 2016 National Heritage Fellow

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A woman stands on a shore wearing a woven blue and yellow blanket.

Portrait of Clarissa Rizal by Tom Pich

It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledges the death of Clarissa Rizal, a Tlingit ceremonial regalia maker, from Juneau, Alaska, and recipient of a 2016 NEA National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.

Rizal was a highly respected cultural leader and a multitalented artist who contributed to the revival and perpetuation of the Chilkat blanket weaving. These difficult and time-consuming twined robes made of wool and cedar bark depict highly stylized images of the crests which embody a clan’s history and eminence. In addition to Chilkat weaving, Rizal perfected the Ravenstail technique, an earlier, more geometric type of Tlingit weaving, and also created blankets depicting crest beings in appliqué and buttons. Rizal educated scores of students in Chilkat, Ravenstail, and button robe techniques. She also organized the Biennial Northwest Coast Native Artists’ Gathering and assembled the Shaax ’SaaniKeek’ Weavers’ Circle of Chilkat and Ravenstail weavers.

Rizal’s weavings received Best in Show at the Heard Museum Indian Art Fair, the Santa Fe Artists Market, the Anchorage Museum All Alaska Juried Art Show, and the Sealaska Heritage Invitational Art Exhibit. She had visiting artist fellowships at the Pilchuk Art School in Washington State, the Rasmuson Foundation, in Alaska, the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation in Vancouver, Washington, and the Smithsonian Creative Capital Grant from the First Peoples Fund in Rapid City, South Dakota, and a George Kaiser Foundation Tulsa Artist Residency.

In a 2016 interview with the National Endowment for the Arts, Clarissa Rizal said, “It’s not just weaving an art form. You’re weaving an entire culture. You’re weaving an entire family clan. You’re weaving energies that pass between the worlds. You’re in connection with all the past weavers. It’s hard to explain, but every one of my students, as soon as they start weaving on their first robe, they have the same exact experience as if people are standing behind them. All the weavers from the past are standing behind them. I know that feeling. I’ve had it. You’re being supported. They are watching you. They’re going to help keep you in line.” 

For more information about Clarissa Rizal, including the full interview and a portrait of her by Tom Pich, visit arts.gov. Video of her at the 2016 NEA National Heritage Fellowships Concert is available here (Clarissa Rizal’s segment begins at 1:43:09).

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