The video "Dragging/Undragging" unfolds on a split screen. On the left, a person turns from the camera. The T-shirt comes off and a breast-flattening compression shirt goes on; next comes makeup and a comb to tease up a tall pompadour. Humboldt artist Brittany Britton becomes Jules, a West Coast drag king. At the same time, screen right, Jules removes the masculine garb and compression shirt, washes away the makeup and attempts to comb out the pompadour. The latter proves ineffective. Britton applies a beanie, instead. The drag king sublimates.

The video is part of Britton's online portfolio, crafted as part of her master's thesis for the Oregon College of Art and Craft. She explains that her work explores, dissects and complicates various identities. And Britton has no shortage of identities. She's an artist whose recent work is on display at the Portland Art Museum. She's a curator, newly handling the Clarke Historical Museum's Native American Collection, and works as the gallery assistant for the Reese Bullen and Goudi'ni Native American Arts galleries at her alma mater, Humboldt State University.

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She ferments fruit. She farms. She's a social media whiz. (Look for her #dinoselfies on Instagram @2brittbritt2.) Drag King Jules is one strand in Britton's basket of self, the thread that explores adornment and gender identity, asking: "What would a Hupa queer community look like?"

Sunday before its doors open, all's quiet in the Clarke Historical Museum in Old Town (240 E St., Eureka). Britton works at a small table, cleaning indigenous baskets. She wears a mask, gloves, Levi's and a padded vest. Baskets of all sizes — Hupa, Karuk and Yurok — line tall shelves nearby. So many baskets. "It's crazypants back here," Britton says. She turns 30 in a few days but it doesn't seem to faze her. "I have no feels about it." She's more excited about plans for the Clarke Historical Museum. "The overall goal I have at the museum is to bring more tribal viewpoints to the table," she says. She's assembling a historic woman's dress exhibit, focusing on changing styles and materials. She's also putting together an exhibit that shows how designs of Native American basketry escape into pop culture and emerge as vinyl decals on cars, tattoos and hoodies.

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In November, Britton installed mirrors under baskets to reveal ornate weaving. She posted pics on Instagram. "Bottoms up, friends," she wrote. "Cute little secrets on these fancy baskets' bottoms." In fact, it was an Instagram post of her art — a lawn chair with hand-beaded straps over an aluminum frame — that led to her inclusion in a contemporary Native American art exhibit at the Portland Art Museum, titled "Not Fragile." A curator saw Britton's post and contacted her: "Please tell me those are glass beads."

Yes, they're glass beads. So many tiny beads. Weeks of meticulous beading.

The piece titled "What She Carried/what I brought" evokes a favorite chair that medicine woman and Britton's great-grandmother, Winnifred George (nee Baldy), brought to Hupa ceremonies.

Art movers came for Britton's beaded piece, signifying a new level of renown. "Art movers!" she says.

Britton has not yet been to Portland to see the exhibit.

"I'm having friends take selfies with the chair," she says. 

Britton credits Hoopa Valley High School art teacher Katherine Bauer-Helwig for nudging her toward higher education. Bauer-Helwig describes teenage Britton as edgy and creative.

"Brittany took everything a step further," Bauer-Helwig says. "Her imagination! She wasn't afraid to do something unconventional."

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Last year, Bauer-Helwig went to see Britton's work at a Piante Gallery show. For "Burden Basket (carry that weight)," Britton twined wire loosely and sprayed it with red plastic coating. The basket holds rocks from the Trinity River. "It was Brittany's way of approaching meaningful issues — historic and contemporary," Bauer-Helwig says. "The river is the lifeblood of Native people and of everybody else who lives around here."

In 2013, Native artist Bob Benson recruited Britton to help curate a Native American art exhibit at the Morris Graves with the theme "River as Home." Benson met Britton at an HSU student art show. "She was 19 or 20, totally hip about all the computer stuff, just exactly what I needed — ideas and energy," Benson says. Now he considers Britton an artistic colleague who will be straight with him. And who will always help him with his phone. "We really need more people like Brittany who can bridge the gap from their homeland to the larger world," Benson says.

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Related Locations

Speaking of Clarke Historical Museum, Morris Graves Museum Of Art


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Deidre Pike

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