Mary Goddard connects to her Tlingit culture through creativity. The Alaska native is gifted in the arts of jewelry design and herbalism, embracing the traditions of her ancestors and presenting them to the modern world. Mary studied her culture’s folklore and craftsmanship, inspiring her to publish the e-book collection “Tlingit Legends.” Each tale is accompanied by photographs featuring jewelry of her own design. Mary is the co-founder of Plantguru.org, a website dedicated to spreading awareness of traditional plant uses and delicious recipes local to South East Alaska. It may sound like the mother, artist, and herbal guru has enough on her plate, but in 2019 she will be teaching at Sitka Fine Arts Camp. Learn more about Mary and how culture, community, and connection inspire her in our Q&A below.
Tell me more about where are you from and how this impacts your work?
I grew up in Yakutat, a small fishing village in Southeast, Alaska. So much of where I grew up impacts my work. My mother was my biggest teacher, teaching me to be resourceful and really use whatever natural resources we had. This was not foreign or unusual as this was the way of life for people raised in Alaska. It really is a natural cause for me to use spruce roots and other traditional materials, it comes easy for me to imagine these things in my art and to incorporate them.
Why did you gravitate to jewelry design?
Honestly, one of my favorite images is of my grandmother and the older ladies in my village when they wore their jewelry. The native women would wear beaded jewelry, and Tlingit silver carved bangles. They would wear as many as they owned. The silver carved pieces really stuck out to me. My grandmother who was full blooded Tlingit, had her silver, but also wore a lot of blingy jewelry, and always had her makeup done. For a young girl it was enchanting to go through my grandmother’s jewelry and see her rock it daily. I think this is one reason I love to mix in a new vibe. My grandmother wasn’t afraid to mix her styles and she surely wasn’t waiting for a special occasion to wear them.
What techniques are your favorites to use?
That’s a good question. I don’t really think of what I do as techniques so much as I do an experiment. So much of what I have created has been purely through experimenting and figuring things out as I go. I think the most fun is creating a smoke print out of a finished piece of jewelry; it just gives me a sense of accomplishment and another element to work with.
Do you have any favorite jewelry designs?
From others or from my designs?
If it’s from others I would have to I really enjoy seeing other Northwest Coast Carver’s work. There is handful of jewelry artists in Sitka, including one of my sisters.
From my designs, I find it most enjoyable to carve fiddleheads and leaves. It just flows so freely when I do those designs.
Can you tell me about your collections studies at the Burke Museum?
My collections studies at the Burke Museum were invigorating. I had the pleasure of doing the collections study with one of my sisters, who is also a jewelry artist (Jennifer Younger), and with our Mother. I had seen similar items in books, which is not the same as holding and examining the items. It was most exciting to see my mother’s face light up when we viewed and handled the Spruce Root Baskets. That was worth it in itself!
How did this opportunity come about for you, and what did you find inspirational about it?
I used to be the Business Manager for the Friends of the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka. Through that time I worked closely with our museum Curator and learned how museum collections are available to be studied. The Curator and I put together several programs. One of the programs included working with the Burke Museum. One opportunity lead to another.
I’ve really enjoyed reading your e-book “Tlingit Legends.” What inspired you to create it?
I am so glad to hear that. Tlingit Legends was pure joy for me! It really goes back to my childhood visions of how I saw my Tlingit Culture. Growing up, surrounded by Tlingit art, I honestly was scared of the strong images and did not understand it. This lead me to softening the images in my imagination and creating a fairy tale feel around the stories. That’s what I wanted to capture through Tlingit Legends, the enchantment, the fairy tale vibe.
Did you design jewelry specifically for the stories, or were your existing pieces already inspired by them?
I designed jewelry specifically for the stories I chose for Tlingit Legends.
The artwork in the book is a beautiful collaboration between you and Alaskan photographer Christal Houghtelling. What do you admire about Chrstial’s work in “Tlingit Legends”? Why did you choose her to be the photographer?
Christal was amazing to work with. She needed no direction and seemed to understand my vision instantly. I actually saw a photo that Christal posted in Instagram and it was exactly what I wanted to capture. Maybe you have seen it? It’s a photo of this beautiful lady in a blue dress, she is outside in Alaska’s elements. It was dramatic and dreamy at the same time. That’s how I knew I wanted Christal to photograph my vision. I was thrilled when she agreed and more than that, when she was excited to do this show with me.
What is it about storytelling and folklore that captivates you?
The Tlingit were storytellers. They still are. This is the way I tell stories, through my art. Ask me to repeat a story vocally and I am sure you would walk away bored. However, I hope I have captured amazing stories through my work. My grandfather and one of my uncles were amazing storytellers. I spent countless hours listening to them tell stories. I think I am captivated because the possibilities are endless.
Plantguru.org is a phenomenal source of information on the herbal and culinary uses of plants local to your region in South East Alaska. What inspired you to co-found the site?
Thank you! Currently I am not as active on Plant Guru as I want to be. Plant Guru is really something that feels so comforting and important to me. I lost my biological mother at birth, her sister (who I now refer to as my mother, as she raised me from birth) would tell me stories of how my biological mother would forage and create the most amazing dishes and dinner parties. I think this has a lot to do with my interest and passion for local plants and cooking. It’s my way to stay connected to her, even though she has passed on. It really is a deep love for me, this passion for indigenous plants and cooking, it fulfills such a longing that’s in my soul.
What are a few of your favorite recipes and remedies?
Oh man! I am terrible, I am constantly creating, so recreating is not something I do much. However, there is a salad I make every year, mostly because those around me love it and it marks such a special time of year. Its my Herring Egg Salad recipe, its posted on the website. If it’s a good year, we get herring eggs once a year, when the herring arrive (which is typically in March or April). The salad is tedious (but delightful) to make as you have to pull the eggs off branches. It’s crunchy and bursts with flavor. It’s really like nothing else.
As far as remedies, the one I swear by is a tincture that is easily made with Elderberry flowers and vodka. Once the tincture is made, my favorite way of using it is adding it to hot water and honey. It’s simple, comforting and effective against colds and viruses.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
I have many passions in my life, art and plants most know about. I feel like my other passion that really has yet to be expressed is film. I am excited to continue to explore this aspect and see how things unfold. I also have a passion for communities and the importance of being connected in a way that makes a positive difference. 2019 I am launching Community Cultural Classes, a program through the Sitka Fine Arts Camp. With this program I will have the opportunity to work with and within Alaska communities to set up classes to have Alaska cultural arts taught.
Learn more about Mary and her work:
Photography: Courtesy of Mary Goddard, featuring the work of Christal Houghtelling