St. Paul artist Marlena
Myles has her first solo show at The Museum Of Russian Art
in Minneapolis. She's standing in front of one of the pieces,
"Degradation: have you ever thought of becoming a new &
better person?" a series of three vinyl prints. (Photo by
It's not unusual for St. Paul-based artist Marlena Myles' work
to be shown in museums. Her digital art, built on her Native heritage,
has been exhibited at Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Minnesota
Museum of American Art and the Red Cloud Heritage Center in Pine
The Twin Cities saw her animated piece "Innerworld Prism" in a
big way recently projected on Highlight Tower in Northeast
Minneapolis as part of the Great Northern Festival.
What might seem unusual is the location of Myles' first solo exhibit:
The Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis.
"People don't think about Russians interacting with Natives," Myles
said in a recent interview. In fact, she said, the United States'
purchase of Alaska "is an untold part of American history
basically a paragraph in books."
As the museum describes her exhibit: "These digitally created works
bring to light the commonly unknown history of interactions between
Russian explorers, settlers, traders, clergy, and Alaska Natives
before the Alaskan territory was sold to the United States in 1867.
These are important reflections, much needed in the contemporary
United States and Minnesota, that acknowledge Indigenous histories."
Myles (Dakota, Mohegan, Muscogee), 35, says she hopes her works
get people to see what they have in common and "compare their own
history, whether they're Indigenous, Russian or other immigrant."
She wants her work to bring new Native audiences to the museum.
Myles' creations in "Dynamics of Russian Colonialism in Alaska"
range from dark, shimmering pieces to images of Native saints and
battles. There are exquisite nature cutouts that create shadows
laid over Russian and Alutiiq (Aleut) words, spirit animals and
an animated story in the language of the Russian Alaska Native village
of Ninilchik. All of them were done in the past couple of months,
says Myles, who prefers working on a tight deadline.
"Stoonook's Vision: Battle
at Sitka," by Marlena Myles. The artist explains the image:
"In 1790, Alexander Baranov was hired to manage the Shelikhov-Golikov
Company, which would become the Russian American Company (RAC)
by 1799. The RAC was given a monopoly over trade in Russian
America by Czar Paul I and Baranov was promoted to chief manager
(effectively the first governor of Russian America). He would
establish permanent Russian settlements, including the only
land ever purchased from Alaska Natives when he bought a portion
of land from the Tlingit to build Redoubt St. Archangel Michael
Site (Old Sitka Site). In 1802, the Tlingit would attack and
destroy the site, which led to Russians retaliating in 1804
with the Battle of Sitka.The Battle of Sitka would be the
last major armed conflict between Russians and Alaskan Natives.
The shaman of the Kiks.ádi Tlingit, Stoonook, knew
the Russians would return. K'alyáan heeded Stoonook's
prophetic vision and urged his village to build a new fortification
(known as Shís'gi Noow, the Fort of Young Saplings)
at Noow Tlein (known today as Sitka, Alaska) that could withstand
cannon fire from Russian ships. The battle lasted for 4 days,
with the Tlingit (led by K'alyaan) evacuating their elderly,
women and children on the third day. On the final day, the
Russians extended offers of peace, which were rejected. That
night, a large Russian contingent of troops landed to secure
the fort, but found none of the Tlingit warriors, who had
escaped under the cover of darkness to begin what they would
call the Kiks.ádi Survival March.Baranov would build
Castle Hill at the site of Noow Tlein, later renamed to Novo-Arkhangelsk
by the Russians, which became the central headquarters for
the RAC. In 1867, it would be the location where Russian Alaska
would be formally transformed to the United States."
Half of the pieces in the Russian exhibit are printed on metal.
Myles says metal captures the digital feel of her work. "It's smooth
like a computer screen," she says.
Mark Meister, who started as executive director at TMORA in 2019,
says one of his goals for the museum is to engage with the community.
Most people don't know about the Russian/Native connection in Alaska,
When Meister looked for a Native artist to help tell that story,
Myles turned out to be the right fit. She'd been studying Russian/Native
history for years and says she used to go to the library after school
to learn more. "She signed on right away," Meister says.
Myles says her interest in Russia comes from a shared history of
oppression. The interactions between Russians and Alaskan Natives
reminded her of "interactions between Europeans and my own people
in the early days of Minnesota history," she says in the exhibit's
The museum director received a Minnesota State Arts Board Cultural
Community Partnership Grant to fund the project. The descriptions
and labels for the exhibit are "all her words," Meister says of
Myles works from home in St. Paul's West Seventh neighborhood in
a spare bedroom, creating her work on the computer. She's a self-taught
artist. Most classes teaching digital art are out of date in five
years, she says.
Digital artists are willing to share their techniques, Myles says,
because they're learning all the time.
And there's no messy cleanup. When Myles paints at home, there
are brushes and canvas and paint spatters. "I like the convenience
and efficiency (of digital art-making)," she says. "It's what I
strive for in life."
She says she does a lot of her work late at night when there are
fewer distractions: "I'm in my own world when I work at home."
Myles was born in Connecticut and the family moved to the Twin
Cities in 1992. A single mother, her mom moved her four children
to Rapid City, S.D., for middle and high school. away from
gang influences and big city problems in the late 1990s.
None of them liked the small town, Myles says, and they all returned
to the Twin Cities after completing school.
Marlena Myles' "Sea Otter
& Northern Fur Seal Animal Spirits." a vector illustration
print on metal, 24" x 24", 2021. Myles says: "Russia's
foray into Alaska was driven mainly by economic purposes
There were never more than 700 Russian colonists occupying
Alaska. They relied heavily upon the labor of the skilled
Alaskan tribes to provide the furs that they would sell to
China and Europe; they obtained this objective through enslavement,
marriages and bartering. They would eventually "sell" Alaska
when the fur trade became unprofitable.For thousands of years,
Alaskan tribes relied upon these animals to provide food,
tools and clothing. The toll of the maritime fur trade had
a disastrous impact on their traditional way of life and on
the animals themselves, with their populations hunted to near
extinction. For example, the Steller's sea cow was hunted
to extinction within 27 years of contact with Europeans. The
sea otter population was down to mere hundreds by the 1900s,
the northern fur seal which numbered in the millions was down
to 200,000. Today, both the fur seal and sea otter are on
the endangered and vulnerable species list. "
Before she became a full-time artist, Myles worked in customer
service at a hotel for a time after the return. She says she liked
anticipating guests' needs before they asked, but she didn't like
the co-workers, emotions and drama. She first exhibited her work
Myles' mother, who does beadwork her daughter says could be shown
in a museum, spoke Dakota as her first language growing up in Spirit
Lake, N.D. Myles is learning the language as an adult and is starting
a Dakota book publishing business that will focus on children's
books. She has illustrated children's books including "Thanku: Poems
of Gratitude," "Kikta wo / Kikta ye!" and "Indian No More" (winner
of the 2020 American Indian Youth Literature Award for best middle
Myles' passion for the culture of her people has also taken her
into fashion. She designs Native print material because she felt
Native fabrics "weren't appealing. They weren't by Natives."
"I want to see our art evolve into modern times," she says.
She wants her art to educate.
"For Native Americans, the American history they teach you in school
doesn't apply today," Myles says.
"Dynamics of Russian Colonialism in Alaska"
"The Mystery of Chirikov's
Lost Men," by Marlena Myles. She says: "In June of 1741, Vitus
Bering (Captain of the Sviatoi Piotr/St Peter) and Alexei
Chirikov (Captain of the Sviatoi Pavel/St Paul) set sail from
Petropavlovsk ("City of Peter and Paul") and headed east.
The two ships became separated six days into their journey
and never saw each other again. Even though Bering is given
credit as the first European to visit Alaska, Chirikov had
arrived two days sooner and had the first European encounter
with the Tlingit people.On July 15, Captain Chirikov spotted
land (near Surge Bay, west of Prince of Wales Island in Southeast
Alaska). Needing fresh water, Chirikov sent a group in a longboat
to shore to find a suitable anchorage. Soon after departing,
there was no sign of the men. Waiting a week, Chirikov finally
saw large bonfires along the coast and sent another group
to investigate, yet they did not return either.The next day,
two canoes of Tlingit men ventured out in front of the ship,
signaling the Russians to come to land. The Russians waved
white flags to signal that the Tlingit were safe to board
their vessel. However, the Tlingit returned to land. Chirikov
concluded in his journal that the Natives must have killed
his men and that was their reason for refusing to come aboard.
However, Tlingit oral traditions state the Russian men escaped
from harsh treatment aboard their Russian ship and had married
into the Tlingit village. Their offspring would become the
more prominent families in the village of Klawock. Near Surge
Bay, there is also a petroglyph that closely resembles a Russian
sailing ship, perhaps serving as a memory of this first encounter
of Russians and Tlingit."
- Where: Fireside Gallery at The Museum of Russian
Art, 5500 Stevens Ave., Minneapolis
- When: Through March 14
- Admission: $13 adults, $11 seniors, $5 students,
13 and younger free
- You should know: Social distancing, face masks
- Info: tmora.org