Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966


Town a 'lifeline' when artist needed restart


February 17, 2011


Artist and gallery owner Debi Knight Kennedy believes in intuition.

Her first connection to Haines came in 1980, when a friend from Juneau took out a map of Alaska and Knight Kennedy pinpointed Haines and said, "That is where I am supposed to be."

There were "crazy zigzags" getting here, she said in a recent interview.

Knight Kennedy grew up in the Seattle suburb of Richmond Beach and had a "fairly normal, middle class" upbringing. Her father was a plumbing salesman and her mother, a housewife. "But I always made things," she recalls, "when I was little I wanted to be one of Santa’s elves. Everybody laughed."

Until she was 14, she trained in ballet, dreaming of becoming a dancer. She gave it up when she realized she’d never have the willowy figure required to be successful in classical dance.

In the absence of dance’s discipline, she became rebellious, clashing with her teachers and parents. After her parents divorced and her older siblings left home, she also began to cycle through anorexia and bulimia, illnesses she described as an addiction that took 20 years for her to conquer. She finished high school with a job washing dishes and no ambition greater than being an "urban hippie."

Enter "Prince Charming," as Knight Kennedy jokingly describes her first husband. By age 24, she had two young children and an abusive marriage. "I was young enough not to know how young I was. I thought that my whole life was ruined."

A turning point came when she saw "The Burning Bed" a TV movie about an abused wife. It made her realize abuse was something that had happened to her, and gave her strength to leave her marriage and take a job working nights as "a really, really bad waitress."

She remembers those years as almost idyllic, despite poverty and a long battle to gain custody of her children. She returned to Richmond Beach and rented a tiny, wood-heated house in a modest neighborhood that had become gentrified. She learned to garden. "My mother was embarrassed to death that I would be in the old neighborhood out chopping wood like a country bumpkin."

She also met a single dad at her daughters’ school whose children were the same ages as her daughters. He became her second husband. "I should have been able to tell... He was really nice to me at first, and he was really nice to my kids, always. By the time I sensed some big problems I felt I couldn’t leave my stepchildren... I took on the role of protector. But when my stepson moved to foster care, it all turned on me. Overnight. Just like that. And it only took a week before I was way down in that hole of being abused."

"A normal person gets up and decides what to do. (Being) down in the hole of abuse is like sliding down an icy slope and you can’t get a finger-hold on anything. You are depressed. You forget how to help yourself... Self-esteem (goes) to zero... You feel as though you probably deserve to be yelled at."

"The very first time that he turned at me and started screaming, it turned me back into an abused woman so quickly that it was shocking to me. I thought that I would have been able to stop it, but it was too quick. I think that until it happens to you, you don’t understand it at all."

But even as her second marriage was crumbling, she was also becoming an artist. With no money for Christmas presents for her four young children, she sewed scraps of cast-off blue jeans into patchwork teddy bears for her children. They came out so well she was encouraged to start a business selling the bears at bazaars.

She had never been encouraged in art.. One teacher ridiculed her first attempts at sculpture, and her parents considered it a waste of time. "They wanted me to go on to college and anything that wasn’t about college they would tell me, ‘You’re too smart for that.’ My dad had a standing offer to pay me $50 if I quit ballet."

One day, at one of her kids’ soccer games, she picked up a knife and began whittling a piece of driftwood. A Port Gamble S’kallam Native and art teacher sitting nearby noticed her and invited her to a carving class. In her first class she joined a group of mostly Native men and made a set of knives.

When the group started work on a 35-foot canoe, Knight Kennedy was too shy to join in, but she’d go to watch while her children were at school. Finally, the teacher told her that if she was going to come every day, she might as well bring her knives and start carving. From that point on, she felt "adopted" by the tribe and would participate in their cultural and social events.

Knight Kennedy studied with the teacher many years, learning to carve masks, bowls, and bentwood boxes. "The last class was ivory carving and that was when I knew what I am. I absolutely knew. I am a carver."

She began to build a reputation as an ivory carver in the Northwest Coast Native style. Her pieces sold in galleries in New York and Seattle. Actor Robin Williams, a collector of Native art, bought one.

Invited to demonstrate ivory carving in Skagway, she was on the ferry from Juneau when she remembered her earlier dream of living in Haines. "Tears were streaming down my cheeks."

She paid her bills, borrowed $200, and left her husband for Alaska, her two daughters in tow. Daughter Jasmine Taylor remembers that she and her sister Coleus, teenagers at the time, were shocked by the sudden relocation. "That first winter, we did not like Haines, but by spring we loved it."

The move, Knight Kennedy said, was driven by desperation. "This was my opportunity to save myself, to save my kids. I was grasping the lifeline. Coming up here to the carving demonstration, I was pulled out of the murky water and I felt like I could breathe... I knew that if I stayed back there, I was going to sink."

Knight Kennedy said that she feared losing her sanity and her health and felt as though her depression, bulimia and anger would irreversibly overwhelm her. She felt Haines was a place where she could bring the pieces of her broken life back together.

The transition was hard. "We were really poor, super poor. We ate a lot of cans of tuna and white IGA noodles. I knew that if I got a job I wouldn’t have time (to make art), I would lose momentum, lose the feeling that I was an artist and that this wouldn’t be true to the artistic gifts that I had been given. This is how I serve the world. It was expected as my kids got older that I would go get a job because we needed the money. But I knew I was a carver and nothing was going to stop me. So I just stubbornly did it and made everyone really mad. Everybody thought I was being really irresponsible."

Financial success came, in part, from a local workshop she took on starting a small business. The class helped her make a business out of casting small carvings into silver and selling it as jewelry, allowing her to sell the same piece of art many times.

"I have the silver. That gives me a regular income. I have bigger pieces that sell intermittently... This allows me to donate one of my bigger pieces each year to a charitable institution to which I feel a connection, such as the woman’s shelter in Juneau, Haines Hospice, and Harborview Hospital in Seattle."

That income also gave her the space to expand her art away from the Northwest Coast Native style.

Her Forget-Me-Not Gallery is full of one-of-a-kind dolls and puppets, their faces and feet carved from hardwoods and their bodies sewn from scraps and snippets of fabric. Daughter Taylor said their inventiveness and playfulness reflects her mother’s personality. "It’s the goofiness; the puppets seem more like how I see her than some of her more structured ivory pieces."

Knight Kennedy also married a third time, to local plumber, musician and long-time Haines resident Gene Kennedy. When she arrived in Haines, she was not open to romance: "Nobody would ever, ever step on me again. My policy was going to be shoot first, ask questions later. But if you have ever seen Gene Kennedy play, you would have to fall in love. And he is very nice, but I still shoot first and ask questions later. I take no chances."

Knight Kennedy most recently has been pursuing writing. An essay she wrote on aging is published in "This I Believe: On Love," the latest edition in the series edited by Dan Gediman. In it, she compares her life to an old seashell, worn so thin as to be translucent. "The wear, the tear, the thinning was allowing the light to shine through. I believe that Mother Nature knows what she is doing."

She also is working on a book about her life, and feels strongly about speaking out about abuse. "I know that somebody is going to read this and recognize themselves and know that they are not alone. It removes a layer of shame. If I can talk about it, then maybe it is not such a shameful thing... I am taking the shame off of myself, and I think that helps other people do it."

Her advice to budding artists? "Don’t let anyone stop you. Don’t listen to them if they tell you that you don’t have talent. Don’t listen if they tell you that you are irresponsible."