Clarissa Rizal Named NEA National Heritage Fellow

TAF Artist Clarissa Rizal was recently named one of nine 2016 NEA National Heritage Fellows by the National Endowment for the Arts. This award marks the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.

Since 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts has awarded 413 National Heritage Fellowships to artists specializing in everything from cowboy poets to gospel singers. This year, Clarissa, a Tlingit Ceremonial Regalia Maker, is in the company of a group of highly skilled individuals in a wide range of art forms, from Laotian Khaen to Irish Button Accordion. In choosing National Heritage Fellows, the NEA looks to award those with a strong dedication to their craft, as well as a proven commitment to educating the next generation in their art form.

Upon hearing about the award, Clarissa was in disbelief, “‘Can you repeat yourself? Are you sure you’ve got the right person?’ I asked when I got the phone call. And she said, ‘Well you are from Alaska, right?’
‘And you’ve been making quilts for over 40 years?
‘Then we’ve got the right Clarissa Rizal.’
I didn’t feel old enough. And then I started thinking about it…I’ve been doing this for 46 years.”

Clarissa finishing her latest Chilkat ceremonial robe in her home studio in Tulsa

Clarissa learned how to create ceremonial regalia when she was 15, and has since studied under several Tlingit elders and mentors, including 1986 NEA National Heritage Fellow Jennie Thlunaut. After a promise made to the late Thlunaut months before her death to help revive Chilkat weaving, Clarissa has kept her word, educating countless students on the techniques of Chilkat, Ravenstail, and button robe techniques.

When asked about Jennie’s encouragement to pass on these skills, Clarissa explained, “That was a requirement. It was not frivolous. There was a lot of direction on her part–she told me how to act and how to be. Imagine that there is one person on earth besides yourself who knows how to do a weaving tradition that’s been handed down for generations and generations–everyone else has died off. Did you plan your life like that? No. We didn’t plan to be the only two left. She watched me, and chose me after determining that I was the kind of person she could trust.”

Clarissa is also very passionate about community involvement and organized the first two Biennial Northwest Coast Native Artists’ Gatherings, bringing together the Shaax ’SaaniKeek’ Weavers’ Circle of Chilkat and Ravenstail weavers. Clarissa’s motivation in organizing these events was to connect artists who knew each other’s work, but because they were all so spread out across Alaska, had never met, a chance to network and build a community.

The 2016 National Heritage Fellows will be honored at an awards ceremony and concert in Washington, DC on September 28 and 30. Click here for more information on this year’s National Heritage Fellows.

Congratulations, Clarissa! We’re proud to witness your creative spirit and passion in continuing the traditions of your heritage.