Sydney Johnson’s white Vans carry formline designs of a raven and a frog, representing her moiety and clan. (Courtesy Photo | Sydney Johnson)

Sydney Johnson’s white Vans carry formline designs of a raven and a frog, representing her moiety and clan. (Courtesy Photo | Sydney Johnson)

This young Juneau artist is doing her part to keep Native artwork alive

Sydney Johnson, 14, started young and is continuing to improve

On her first day of preschool, Sydney Johnson had a decision to make.

During drawing time, she and other students had a wide array of utensils. As her classmates grabbed brightly colored crayons or markers, Johnson reached for something different.

“I felt like I was a weird kid because I chose a pencil over crayons and markers,” Johnson said.

It turns out that might have been the right choice. Johnson, now 14, uses pencils and markers now and has impressed teachers, elders, family members and others with her artistic talent. Throughout her time at Harborview Elementary School and Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School, Johnson has had her artwork featured in contests and in displays.

Johnson’s interest in art began even before preschool, her mother Violet Johnson recalls. Sydney began drawing when she was only three years old, Violet said, and it was immediately clear that she had natural talent.

“She was actually pretty detailed form the beginning,” Violet said. “You know how most kids draw stick figures and whatnot? She was drawing full-on faces and bodies.”

Violet said she believes there’s another motivating factor in her daughter’s work. Early in her life, Sydney began getting severe ear infections, and lost a decent amount of her hearing as a result. Art, Violet said, seemed to become Sydney’s way to escape from the pain and frustration of her ear infections and hearing loss.

Sydney acknowledged that too, saying her art has become a refuge of sorts.

“I get annoyed,” Sydney said, “so I just start drawing.”

She has a spiral notebook full of drawings, with figures that range from celebrities to household items to Bart and Lisa Simpson to formline artwork.

Sydney’s Tlingit and Tsimshian heritage has always been close to her heart, she said. Her mother said Sydney was drawing ovoids — a primary shape that is important in Alaska Native artwork — when she was just four years old. She has also performed in a dance group with her grandmother since she was young, and has taken the stage at Celebration many times. She said she speaks a little Tlingit and is hoping to learn more.

One of her most recent projects stemmed from her Tlingit roots, and came about during a class project. Sydney was taking an intensive math class with Dzantik’i Heeni teacher Jeannie Wolfe when Wolfe proposed they do an art project. Though she wasn’t excited about the class at first, Sydney started to warm up to it when she began working on her newest project.

“She just helped me get out of my comfort zone,” Sydney said of Wolfe. “When I first went to that class, I kind of didn’t want to be there.”

Wolfe proposed that each of the students take a pair of white Vans sneakers and draw a design on them. The shoes served as a blank canvas, and Sydney grabbed a few markers and got to work. She drew a raven, representing her moiety, and a frog, representing her clan.

Her artwork has drawn the attention of peers, family members and local elders, Sydney said. Comments from elders have been particularly meaningful, she said, and she understands the importance of carrying on both artwork and language.

“I hear elders and they’re like, ‘Make sure our culture never dies,’” Sydney said, “because seriously, a lot of kids don’t know how to speak it so I can see why they teach how to speak the language.”


• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or amccarthy@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.


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