A look at the indigenous art in Alaska

Glen Simpson Interview, December 11, 2018

Glen Simpson Interview Transcription

Glen: “There are a few concepts that are basic to native cultures. One is animism. Everything has a spirit. A rock has a spirit. A stream has a spirit. A tree has a spirit. I pick up a rock and I put it back down where I got it, I don’t even think about it. I think, “I don’t want to disturb this world’. Take what you need, but to take something that you don’t need means that you’re not treating it properly. You’re not acknowledging it, that it has a spirit. You don’t hunt when you don’t need meat, you don’t fish when you don’t need fish. When you do fish, you catch the fish you need and you stop fishing. You don’t want to take anything that you can’t use. My family are fur traders and Hudson’s Bay Company people. I was in the era of gold mining and truck driving. That was it. I had two choices in life. I could be….you could be a miner or you could be a truck driver. It was kind of… that’s what everybody did. I didn’t consider art as anything except what strange people in short pants did somewhere far, far away. But I had a highschool teacher in whitehorse. Lilias Farway, was a wonderful teacher, and so I took classes from her as part of going to school for a couple years. I did a piece, a sculpture, that went to the Western Canadian competition, and I was the award winner for the sculpture division, and I thought “wow!’. So, you know, it had some meaning.’
“But then, I came to Fairbanks, and I registered as a Geology major, and then I got wandering around the campus, and I walked into a class, it was silversmithing. I looked and I thought “Jesus, this looks really interesting’. So I got a late sign up permission and I started taking the class. Once I discovered art, I started staying up all night,working in metals, and finally I thought, “Jesus, what am I doing, I’m staying up all night working metals, and I’m supposed to be an Anthropology major’. Ron Senungetuk had gone to the school for American craftsman in Rochester, RIT, in Rochester NY, and so I thought, “well, that’s a recommendation.’ So I went there and I stayed there for four years. I got my masters, an MFA in metals. My thesis work was holloware. Where you take metal and you work it into a container, that’s the holloware. Forging, working, and that’s working with metal as a plastic material. You see, it’s unyielding, you have to hammer. 50 hours later, you have a container, that’s driven up out of sheet metal. When I finished school, I got a job here on the campus immediately, and taught metalsmithing and jewelry. But, rather than continue to be very much influenced by Danish modern, Scandinavian, you know… I started to realize how much the Native concepts meant to me, and I just started a continuation of anthropology. I kept seeking out knowledge, and finding ways to include it into, and to use it as the basis for my work.’
“I spent time on St. Lawrence island with the old siberian pipe makers, where men would smoke these pipes. (gestures to pipe) Very small bowl. What they would do is, to make a filter, so you wouldn’t inhale the tobacco, they would poke some reindeer hair down in the bottom with a little ivory pick, and compact it, and then they’d pack the tobacco on the top. Man would get up in the morning, wake up, and instead of getting out of his sleeping rub, he’d reach out and get his pipe, and then he’d pack it, and then he’d light it, and burn out in one inhalation. Exhale as far as possible, inhale, and burn the thing to the bottom. And then he’d see stars and stripes, and (laughs)…’

“In sandthrow Yupik, there’s a creature that’s a river crocodile. It has six legs, they call him the Palraiyuk. So I was messing with technique, and I discovered how I could print copper or silver in this kind of reptilian-looking pattern skin. So I thought, “Jesus, that looks like some kind of reptile.’ So, once I thought, “ there’s a crocodile skin,’. So then I printed material, copper, and colored it with the torch, oxidized it. Cut it into the form of the Pelraiyuk. This is the Palraiyuk skin (shows cutout), a genuine Palraiyuk..’ (shows box) “ Here’s a genuine, bent Palraiyuk skin container. Very much like the oval bent wood boxes. That’s the form (points) bent around, overlapped, exotic wood bottom. The top is muskox horn, which is part of the mythology of the Palraiyuk. When they find muskox skulls in (unintelligible), people would contribute them to the Palraiyuk. It’s really quite a nice material.’
“ There’s a buckle (holds silver salmon head buckle up), in sterling. It’s the silver salmon buckle. It’s, uh….’
Interviewer:’ heavy duty! Is this sterling?’
Glen: “ It’s sterling, yeah.’
Interviewer: “ And the eye, what is that?’
Glen: “ That’s gold, 14k gold.’
Interviewer: “wow!’
Glen:’ So, a gold eye. I think he’s very effective, graphically.’
Glen: “There’s some ivory (holds up necklace) Whale’s tail.
Interviewer: “ Is this (unintelligible)?’
Glen: “Well, it’s mineral stained.
Interviewer: “mineral stained:’
Glen: “Yeah, that’s ivory from St. Lawrence Island.’
Interviewer: “And the chain is..’
Glen: “The chain is classical gold chain. I made my own alloy and rolled it, and drew it to get the wire, and this is fused classical chain. There’s no soldering involved. You close the links by heating them to the point where they flow shut like a weld. So there’s no soldering at all. It’s an ancient material, fused classical chains. So this is 22k gold. And then, the mineral stained walrus ivory, and then a pattern of the same gold piercing through. It’s a process called PK, which was done in 1892 that kind of era, where tortoise shell often it was decorated with PK, of gold or silver or wire, and then it’s worked off so that it’s flush but you have this dot pattern around here (gestures to necklace). Mineral stained walrus ivory is so beautiful, it’s just, the texture, the colors. The whales tale was a captain’s share for whalers, so I called it the Captain’s Share.’

(holds up beaded necklace) “Here’s a piece that’s very…I got the beads from Nunivak island. They’re called white hearts, three beads. About 1830, white hearts came onto the market. Prior to that, green hearts were more common, a green interior (gestures). And then, the little guy (indicates little loon figurine on necklace) is from Brevig, Kotzebue Sound, and that’s the loon. It’s a loon swimming underwater. The loon is one of the ancient symbols of shamanic power, because the loon lives in different worlds. He flies in the air, he walks on the earth, he swims under the water, and this is spiritual power, shamanic power.’

(holds up necklace on a chain) “This also is Yupik, it’s sometimes referred to as as shamanic hand. For the people, it’s a tongue hawk hand. Tongue Hawk is a spirit that lives in the moon, and he controls animal life that comes back to the earth. So a shaman could go to the moon, negotiate with the tongue hawk to release animals back to the earth. So, more seals, more walrus, more caribou and so on. The tongue hawk is controlling the release of new life back to the earth, and to represent that, his hands are shown, especially as appendages on masks, as a hand with a hole pierced in the palm, and the thumb is tucked in as a vestigial, which means the grip is lessened. He’s more likely to release life back to the earth. So it’s a beautiful form, that’s a tongue hawk hand. And then this is a trade bead, from that area, one of the early trade beads probably came across from Asia. Then, I have the upturned rim, I soldered gold on the rim, so there’s a yellow line. And then the bead is in there on a cross piece, so the bead can be moved, it’s not fixed, it can turn on it’s cross piece. And… (chuckles)
(holds up grizzly bear claw necklace) “A grizzly bear claw, and the little bear’s head, and a trade bead-amber glass bead- probably Venetian. I found it in an old….site of an old trading post up on the porcupine river, just in the ground. And so, I set the claw, little bear’s head, a little bead from the area….’ (points to different components of necklace)
“I always work small, I like the scale of these things, they’re very personal, they’re charms, and they have this certain powers associated with them. This sort of thing is very pleasing to me. I love certain local materials. Ivory, antler, hoof and stuff like that, I really like to use it. I wrote quite a bit. I wrote a lot of poetry for a lot of years. Everything I wrote would fit -one poem- would fit on one half of an index card. They never got any bigger than that, because I was looking for the essence, you know, the heart, the meaning. And so, my writing is (laughs and gestures with hand), that’s it, and you know, I’m trying to project an image, so I’d write very carefully, crafting the words, the language, and the image. If art has any power, it’s the content. So, materials can change, but it’s all being structured on cultural knowledge, and then it has some strength. It’s relevant. Art is expression. Art has a message. Art has content. But I do like drawing on cultural concepts and then, creating the object with whatever you have, you know.’

Inupiat of Arctic Alaska, arcticcircle.uconn.edu/Museum/Art/Simpson/