A look at the indigenous art in Alaska

Danielle Larsen


Danielle: Could  you guys tell me about the project a little bit more?

Rick: Sure. Well, we’re both in this Alaska Native Arts course with a number of other students who are all over the place. Some in state. Some out of state. And, we’ve learned about the different regions of Alaska Native art from various cultures, from southeast, to north, to the Aleut regions, and then we took quizzes, we discussed things online. Then our major project is to find an artist, an Alaska Native Artist, build a portfolio page, a bibliography. Then contact that person, and we put together a number of questions and then interview. And from there we get to post it.

Victoria: Yes. I’m not sure where, but somewhere through UAF, because that’s where the course is through.

R: I believe it is connected to the Native Arts Center there. But I believe it has a wider broadcast because it’s accessible throughout the state. It’s on the internet. It’s everywhere. So, I think there’s a little exposure in there too.

D: Yeah, that’s good.

R: Which is good. I thought of you because, I’ve met you, I know you, I’ve seen you work. And, you’re local, and you know, you’re pretty inspiring. So, that’s basically it. And for us to get credit for the course, but for me, it’s become more of an enrichment. I’ve learned a lot because of you. My previous connection with Alaska Native culture was being up in the villages and having a lot of friends there. I just thought this course would be a great way to enrich myself, so…

D: Yeah, great.

R: Thought about you. So, we’re going to go back and forth. You can elaborate as much as you want; you can share as much as you want. Alright, first question: so, how do you feel about being interviewed for this project of being part of the larger scope?

D: Interviews always make me nervous, but I honestly, I find that they’re also good for me as an artist because they’re something I have to do. I always get, every so often, interviewed, so it’s always good to like try to think about some of these questions because they come up kind of often. Like, where your work is inspired from and stuff like that. Sometimes, obviously, inspiration can come from anywhere, but sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly is most inspiring and what led you down the course that you ended up on. But it’s good to think about.

V: Yeah, we might have a couple repeats of those questions, but the second question we have is during your childhood what were some artistic influences that have shaped your current work?

D: Well, I grew up in a big family. I’m of a family of five kids so there was a lot of us, and growing up, my mom just always had us doing stuff to keep us busy. But my mom was also, when I was really little, she was going to college, and she was in painting classes. I seen some of her work, and she did really great work. She didn’t keep it up and continue it, but it was good seeing her doing it when I was younger. My dad was also a huge influence on me. He was kind of the more adventurous one who would take us everywhere. So, he took us on a train from here to Valdez and then we drove back. Our car went on the train, and then we came back. He took us to Denali when we were kids, and took us on the bus out to see all the animals in the back. He also took us camping and fishing. I didn’t grow up in the village. My dad tried to do as much as he could with us to keep our ties with our culture. I grew up with family members beading, and so art was always just a part of my life. All of those things kind of comes together and influences my art in different ways.

V: Okay. Where do you draw your inspiration from?

D: I feel like sometimes I’m all over the place. So, I could get inspiration from just little mundane things that you wouldn’t think would be subjects; I guess, because, you know, most people paint landscapes or stuff like that. When I painted my dad salmon jars, I found the beauty in that moment, and everybody loves it. I took something that I loved and shared it with people, and a lot of people ended up loving them too. So, sometimes my inspiration is just from the little things in life.

V: That’s probably one of my favorite pieces too!

R: All right, so how about inspiration drawn from other artists: was there an artist or artists who inspired you in the past and are there any artist that inspire you now?

D: Well, when I was younger, one of my art teachers did a whole series on Van Gogh, and I was just really like interested in him because his art was really beautiful. Then she told us the story of how he cut off his ear, and it just, as a little kid, it kind of baffled me. So, I, when I drew it–because we all had to draw pictures of his–so I drew a picture of him, and I made sure he had two ears. I liked how he painted what was around him, and he just made things to me like more beautiful than they maybe were. Currently, Alvin Amason was my instructor, and he was like really good at directing me. Like, I had other teachers who were [asking] “why are you painting salmon jars,’ and then he was like “that’s what you should paint if that’s what you want to paint. You go for it! I think that’s great.’ He was a very good mentor in that way. He made me feel like what I was doing was the right direction instead of like “what are you doing?’ Basically after my dad passed away, I had a good job, and I could have stuck with doing the event planning, but it kind of changed my direction. I went back to school, and it kind of just turned my life around, doing what I’d like instead of just living and working.

V: You blend both traditional and modern materials and technique in your art. How do you decide what direction to go in when selecting materials and media?

D: Sometimes, I feel when you’re connecting both traditional and modern, I feel like this is the life we’re living now. While it’s nice to just show traditional artwork all the time, it’s not really truly what the world we’re living in now, so I’d like to bring in those cultural stuff that makes us feel, like Folgers cans and Tang or all these things that we grew up on, like Milkman and bringing in all of those things that were included in our culture even if we didn’t like them. I didn’t really care for Milkman. I just think when you’re making art that some of it has to be a reflection of yourself and the things around you, to be with what’s close to you.

R: So, kind of following up on that a little bit,looking at your art we see the historical references in some of your work and are wondering what particular past events drive you? Thinking about the feel and the story.

D: I heard about my grandparents’ story for a long time, and I thought about how I was gonna represent them. I always knew that I wanted to paint fur seals to kind of represent them because that’s the whole reason they met. My grandpa was sent to St. Paul to harvest seals, so that’s where he met my grandmother. And then, they fell in love, and so when I painted this, I wanted to kind of keep the history but also tell their love story. It’s two paintings, but they’re two fur seals looking at each other. I just, it took me a long time to come up with what I wanted it to encompass, and I wanted it to reflect my grandparents. I also wanted my dad to be a part of it, and then I put a little tiny bit of myself into it. So the back layer of the painting is maps of Alaska, and since my heritage is Inupiaq, Athabascan, and Aleut. I thought, “Well, I kind of represent a whole part of the state.’ I thought the maps would kind of represent my cultural background. I included writings that my dad wrote down about living on the Aleutians. All of the writings in the background are my dad, and the seals represent my grandparents.

V: You touched on this a little before but how do you see traditional culture influencing your art?

D: Well, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve just been really lucky, and I’ve gotten a chance to learn a lot in my cultural stuff that I didn’t get to necessarily learn when I was younger. Like, I took a week-long artist’s residency at a museum where I learned how to process seal gut for making baskets or raincoats or whatever, but they taught us how to clean the gut off and bring it down to its essence for you to hang it and dry it and everything. I feel like even though I don’t use–well I make earrings and stuff with it–but I don’t use it in my paintings or anything. I still feel like that part of it brought me closer to my heritage and made me think about it a little bit deeper. Because now, I have that personal connection and using the materials–I’ve also made paintings about fur seals–and so it kind of encompasses like a deeper meaning for myself personally.

R: What pieces have been your favorite to create?

D: Well, when I was working on my thesis at UAA, the one painting that probably meant the most to me was the painting of my dad’s salmon jars. Then I put two images together, so underneath is my dad’s wallet, his glasses, everything, so that one was, probably. I still have that one. It’s one of the ones I hadn’t sold, but that one just meant a lot to me. The one with my grandparents meant a lot to me. So those are the two big ones that meant a lot.

V: Do you think your style has changed over time and if so how?

D: I don’t know if my style has changed a lot, but I know the more I paint, the better my skills get. Sometimes just the way I do things, I want to do things differently, so I change things up just because I want to try new things or do things different. I think over time, as your life goes on, you evolve, and change always comes.

R: What is the process you go through when creating a piece?

D: Well, there’s one piece that I did: it was about the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. I knew I wanted the book to be in the painting, but I wanted to also like subtly speak in different ways about what had happened and how fast it had to happen. So, in the corner of the painting, I put a bullet, and then on the other side, I put a lemon that was peeling. I kind of wanted the lemon to represent the sourness of it because they had to do it so quickly, and all of the people that were doing it were like in their 20s. They wrote this big claim in their 20s, and they had to get all of their family members to sign up within a month. Can you imagine getting all of those Natives to sign it up? So the bullet represented, you know, they had a gun to their head saying you’ve got to do this or else you’re gonna lose your lands. When I thought about the painting, I put those little subtle things in it sometimes.

R: Part of our studies has been revolved around the inequalities and the brutality, and I sense that in some of your work and your writing. I hear it in what you’re saying right now, and perhaps that’s inevitable that your work has to be inspired by that? Is that true?

D: Well, I when grew up, my dad worked for a native corporation, he’s the president of the Aleut corporation, so I always kind of grew up in the political environment of the Native corporations. Then I worked for CIRI for ten years, so I can’t say that I was never a part of it because I was. I was like involved since I was like a teenager my dad started working for the Aleut corporations, so I’ve seen it from different perspectives. I talked to my aunt, who was a big part of signing up her whole family, and she was so young when she had to sign up, to make sure all of her family members were signed up. I guess if you didn’t know about it you wouldn’t know the pressure that was under them to do it and to get it done and to make sure all their family members were signed up. They were under a lot of pressure, and there are these young kids,some of them were just in college, they were freshly in college. I’ve heard like, like Willie Hensley so you talk about writing it, and you know, all those people are my dad’s generation. It amazes me that they don’t maybe get the accolades that they should in Alaska state history. They should be teaching it more.

V: I agree. Like, this could be a whole other interview honestly, but have been some of the challenges or what is the most changing thing about being an artist?

D: I feel like the hard part is like pushing myself to talk to people and get out there, and I feel like I’m always going out there. I need to get better at like doing an elevator speech and talking about myself and talking about my work. Sometimes at those big functions, I feel like I clam up. As I get older, I’m getting better at it. I think that just comes with age.

R: Is there anything you would tell young artists as they’re searching for perfection in their pieces and in success?

D: You know, I never think my paintings are always perfection. Sometimes, you just have to be done and let it go and then move on to something else, but I would say just keep creating. The more you do, the more work will come, and the better you’ll get. You just gotta stick it out because there’s gonna be times where don’t think you do it, and then the next day, someone will call you with a commission and want you for this big thing the next day. So even on the days where I’m feeling like, “man, I’m working so hard and feeling like I’m not getting anywhere,’ people are noticing your stuff. You just gotta stick with it, so I have. I didn’t do a lot of big shows this year. I have had a few, but I got huge commissions coming up next year.

R: That’s been hard work.

D: No. I’m doing well. It’s for Cook Inlet Housing Authority. I got a call just yesterday. They asked me to do a commission for a building that they’re creating downtown called the Elizabeth Peratrovich Art Place, and they said that they had me in mind. They want a painting for the three different floors, and they want me to think about the paintings for each of those floors, even the wall colors for the floors and everything. They want the art to be a part of the buildings, and I’m also doing a huge commision for the new Ernie Turner Center that been built. I told him I wouldn’t have time until January.

R: That’s excellent! Congratulations!

D: Then I have a big show at APU, so my holy art plan is already planned out next year.

R: Those are the only questions we have. Do you want to add anything?

V: Well, thank you so much!

D: You’re welcome!