A look at the indigenous art in Alaska

Interview with Kipo Tetpon Wales, 4/28/20


Interviewer: Melissa Langley Jones

Transcribed by Rose Hendrickson


Melissa: So where are you originally from?

Kipo: I’m originally from Unalakleet, Alaska.

Melissa: And could you tell me about your family, how many siblings, tell me about your parents, and what life was like with your family?

Kipo: Ok, I was the youngest of nine children, and I, basically I was born in Unalakleet, but left Unalakleet when I was only five or six, and we moved to Anchorage.  

Melissa: Oh wow.

Kipo: At that time Anchorage had only one gravel road.  

Melissa: Hm, that’s crazy.

Kipo: *laughing* The rest of the roads, when I was a girl, in Anchorage, when we moved there when I was six, that’s all we had; Gambell Street was a gravel road.

Melissa: Really?

Kipo: Yeah, yeah and so we moved to a two-story house, a grey house, in Fairview, I think it was. Fairview back then was a small section of the town that was closer to town. And so, we lived there for about two or three years and then we moved to some property my father bought in Chugiak.

Melissa: Oh, ok.

Kipo: Which was, it had no well, no electricity,  

Melissa: Wow.

Kipo: So he purchased a Quonset hut, *chuckles* from the military. He gutted it and made it into sections where there were bedrooms and a living room, and a kitchen and a laundry room.  

Melissa: Mhm.

Kipo: And one of the rooms where he carved, his ivory, that he subsidized his income to raise nine kids, carving ivory.

Melissa: Wow. So, what was it like, I mean you are kind of telling me a little bit about what it was like growing up, (but) what was it like for you culturally? I would imagine with Great Grandpa, carving culture was taught, but what did they teach you about our culture, about being Inupiaq, when you were growing up?

Kipo: Oh, it was mostly, what I learned, was mostly about food, and art. Create – being creative with your hands, making. They made mukluks and dolls and yo-yos for the tourist industry to subsidize their income to raise a large family, and mostly what I remember is gathering food; berries in the fall, and fish and clams and halibut and trout, and just a lot of food that my father taught us that we could glean from the land if we put an effort out.

Melissa: Yeah, yeah for sure. So how were you introduced to carving? I mean, I think it was really hard for women back then to really get started; from what I understand is it was more for men to carve.

Kipo: Yeah, so males usually were the carvers and the creators for you know, the tourist industry also, but um, just watching my dad create a dog team out of little pieces of ivory, and then all of a sudden at the end of the day he’s got a whole dog team-

Melissa: Yeah.

Kipo: -and a man at the back too, so yeah, watching my father carve and create walruses and seals and hunters and dogs and dog teams, it was fascinating. I mean as a child, because I think I had a creative nature.

Melissa: Did he mentor you? I mean when you decided that you wanted to start carving, did he take you aside and say “here’s how you do it’ or did you learn with my grandpa or with (uncle) Levi?

Kipo: The first introduction I got to learn how to treat stone, alabaster and soapstone, (soapstone was what I started out with), was with Levi, my brother Levi. He gave me some tools. I had watched him a couple times, you know, observed him create and carve, and one day he just gave me some tools and a piece of rock and told me to make something, so I did. And it turned out to be part of, I guess you could say, I sold it to the Anchorage Museum, and they still have it in their personal collection.

Melissa: Really? I had no idea!

Kipo: *chuckling* One of the first sculptures I ever made, seriously, so, it was in a contest, I won 2nd place!

Melissa: Really?! I didn’t know that, that’s cool!

Kipo: It was a hunter walking with a seal on his back, and in the depiction of the face I used my uncle Simon, my mom’s brother.

Melissa: is that where Grandpa gets his name Bekoalook?

Kipo: Ummmm, yes.

Melissa: Ok, I know he signs his artwork and I have seen the first name Simon Bekoalook.

Kipo: Yeah, so I learned from watching Levi, and one day Levi said — I was working as a secretary at Anchorage Fire Department-

Melissa: Oh cool.

Kipo: -right out of high school, and I got a job there, and I enjoyed it, but I found myself leaving work in the dark, and coming home, you know, going to work in the dark and waking up in the dark and you know, the day is gone. So, when I found out that I could sell my work and make some money off of it, and built a clientele of people who –   it took me a long time to build this clientele because…. I sold little tiny curios, seals and whales and birds, carrying them around in gun cases.

Melissa: *chuckles* Grandpa did that too

Kipo: On 4th Avenue, on notorious 4th Avenue, I mean, literally, that’s how I started. I started from the ground up. *laughs*

Melissa: Grandpa still did that, because my first job ever was wet-sanding for him, so-

Kipo: Yes, I remember that.

Melissa: – so when I would get the pieces, they would be in his gun cases. *laughs*.

So, I know the answer to this one, but what is your background of art; did you go to school, did you take classes, just tell me about that.

Kipo: Well actually, no, I really seriously believed seriously, that anybody could do this. You could do this, I mean, if you just took the time, that’s how easily it came to me. I was an artistic child and in elementary school and grade school and junior high I was very artistic, very organized with the fact that I think I had a gift. I think I was even only eight years old when I realized that I could create things with my hands or draw, and I always knew that I would someday become an artist. I’ve heard people say that and they say it’s rare, but I did. I knew it. There was just something in me that wanted to carve, or create, or sew, or draw or paint or, you know, stack rocks *chuckles*.

Melissa: You have that artistic energy, for sure.

Kipo: It came so easily to me that I took it for granted, and then by the time I went to art school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I started to meet singers and dancers and musicians and met, like, gifted people, and I thought to myself, “maybe I am gifted’.

Melissa: I think you for sure are.

Kipo: And then I didn’t take it for granted after that. After that, after I left Alaska and met people, talented people, actors and singers, dancers, and I was just awestruck at talented people like that, and so then I realized it was a gift.

Melissa: Ok. So, I know that when I would go in to, like Grandpa’s shop, I remember that he was always really protective of his work, and I think the thing was, from what I remember, he was like, I don’t want people to copy my style, you know, so some people are really protective of their style. How did yours come to be? What made you carve, kind of, in the way that you do?

Kipo: Hmmmm, see, I don’t know-

Melissa: Just how it comes out, it seems?

Kipo: Yes, and I know I have particular style because I can see it with other people doing things differently than myself. If we all had five rocks and we sat down with five rocks and each carved a walrus, they would all be five different walruses.  

Melissa: Yeah-

Kipo: Say the question again, say the question again.

Melissa: So yeah, I think what I was just thinking about was when I‘d go to Grandpa’s shop, I remember he was like, “don’t look at my stuff, *chuckles*, he was like-

Kipo: Oh, oh yeah, you know that part about –

You know, at first I kind of felt that way, and then after a while I wanted to give it away as a gift. If somebody wanted to take some idea that I had, especially my family, especially my nephews , if they wanted to take an idea of mine, I would say: “go for it, go with it’, so I don’t have that real like “oh don’t copy my work’.

Melissa: Yeah, that’s good, I just remember Grandpa just being like, I don’t think it was really like meaning, he wasn’t being mean, there was no real meanness behind it-

Kipo, Well, no, and I saw it too, yes and there was no — and I sanded your father’s work when I was in grade school-

Melissa: Did you really!?

Kipo: -when they lived down in Chugiak, and they had babies in diapers, I would sand his carvings-

Melissa: I didn’t know that.

Kipo: *laughing* he would pay me, you know, a couple dollars per hour-

Melissa: Yeah, he would pay me the same but like a few dollars per piece *laughs*.

Kipo: But that’s, I don’t know, maybe that influenced me, unknowingly. You know, just being around my father’s work, watching him just all of a sudden blossom out a whole dog team, and then sanding for, I know that probably influenced me, and being around my brother Levi.

Melissa: So, when you talk about who was influential it sounds like Uncle Levi was, who else was really influential throughout your career?

Kipo: Hmm, Well, by that time I had already left home. I went to art school in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1974. ’74-’76, kinda round in there, and I did go to art school already being a sculptor – I wanted to become a photographer.

Melissa: Oh really-

Kipo: That was my goal, because I had already been a carver, you know. I had already made a living at being a carver by the time I got there. Paid my rent and bought my groceries etcetera,   with the work of my hands, and so anyway, I really wanted to learn how to do photography, and by the time I got to the school, after being accepted at the institute of American Indian Arts, we had switched presidents, another president came into power, and my grant was cut by the time I got from Anchorage to Santa Fe, New Mexico and walked into the school. Well, guess what? There was two Alaskan Teachers, sculpture teachers, in the art department, sculpture department, from Alaska, the Olanna (sp?) brothers, I don’t know if you have ever heard of them..

Melissa: You know I believe we went over this in one of the modules for class, heh.

Kipo: So anyway, there they were at the institute! They asked the people that ran the school and petitioned for me to be accepted as going to the school, not to get a degree, just to be around the influence of the school. When the Olanna brothers found out that my grant was slashed, they petitioned the council of the school and so I was able to attend the school for almost two years. And made a B+ average-I was excited to learn art history, and to go into the teachings of everything about art. So, it was nice. I learned everything about the body, the form, the bones of the face, every muscle in your face, every muscle in your body, your hand and, I mean, it was like going to medical school.

Melissa: Yeah, I notice in your art there is a lot of human form, obviously there’s animals as well, and it seems like, your work is a little more defined in that way, for sure.

Kipo: There is one thing that I always took with me, when I was accepted to go to art school in Santa Fe, one of the women that ran the gift shop – Alaska Native Arts and Crafts was the name of the store back then, she asked me not to lose my Native talent. She said, “I hope you don’t come back feeling like you have to re-create the human form like Europeans do, with their detail, and everything, like you know, Michelangelo or something like that’, and she said, “Try very hard to please hang onto your Natural gift’.

Melissa: Yeah, for sure.

Kipo: And so, I did that. I did that. I was very conscientious of, yeah, not trying to re-create European art. Not thousands of years ago. *laughs* You know a copy of this article that was written in 1988 I think it was, in my local paper, in our local paper…Record Courier, anyway, I’ll send you an article that was printed up, it was a 1 page article with a beautiful photo of me sitting with all my sculptures around me, and I can send you the brochure.  

Melissa: I would love that!

Kipo: And that would be an additional to developing what you want.

Melisssa: Yes, I would love that! We do have permission to use your images, right?

Kipo: Yes.

Melissa: Ok, perfect.

One thing you were talking about was, they said ,“don’t lose your style’,  

Kipo: Yes —

Melissa: -and don’t lose the look to your art, like with the culture, how, obviously in a lot of your art, your subjects are wearing the Inupiaq traditional parkas, and things like that. How do you try to incorporate that Inupiaq culture?

Kipo: Hmmm, I did learn about some of the things that I drew, I asked my mother, why are things a certain way as, um, design wise as the culture, and just one real cute story, was, I asked my mother why the mukluks, only the women had these stripes on their mukluks and I was drawing a mukluk on this woman, and anyway, she explained to me that all the good parts of the fur went to the men. Because they’re the hunters. They have to go out and hunt. All the good parts of the skin, the skin and the fur and everything, what the woman ended up with by the time she made her husband and her children clothing, was the legs-

Melissa: Ah, I see.

Kipo: -of the caribou, and, so, yeah, I mean, that’s how I learned, you know, you just learned from asking questions: “Mom, why do all the women have stripes on their mukluks?’

Melissa: I see. And so-

Kipo: So, I draw them like that now.

Melissa: So Great Grandma was really kind of teaching you all the cool Inupiaq fashion tips. *chuckles*

Kipo: Well one of the things my dad told me that I always remembered was you could tell the tribe, at a distance, by the shape of their hood.

Melissa: I didn’t know that, huh.

Kipo: If the hood came to a point, they are more like people from way over in Canada.

Melissa: Really.

Kipo: And the rounder the hood, the more like the Yupiks and the Inupiaqs.

Melissa: I did not know that, that’s very interesting.

Kipo: So there, I mean, there’s little things like that, that I use, in my carvings and my drawings that I learned, from conversations with my mom about “why do women wear this and how come, you know and… and then, being not raised in that culture, I was not raised in that culture. I was raised on “Leave it to Beaver’ and *laughing* “Father Knows Best’. You know, I was not raised, other than gathering food, and then, watching my parents with the elders, when we went to church, and to gatherings and to be around the Native culture. I did not know how to speak it – well they, sometimes they would all laugh at me, and *laughing* I knew they were laughing at me.

Melissa: I do not know how to speak the language either, and I remember, I’ve only heard Grandpa speak it once, and that was the one rare time that we went to Shaktoolik. And that was when I was, five?

Kipo: Wow!

Melissa: And Grandma was just listening to him, she wouldn’t speak it either, so I just remember it really took me back, because I just was like: oh, he’s speaking Inupiaq right now. And Grandma did teach us phrases, and there’s only been one other time where I heard somebody say Kangipping(?), and then you’re supposed to say nakurana(?), and so there was only one time that I have ever heard an exchange that I really understood.

Kipo: Well and then Mom and Dad they loved it when Christmases or birthdays would come around or things they wanted us not to know, and so they would always speak it in their language.

Melissa: So why do you think, how come they never spoke the language, is it just because they wanted you to maybe assimilate better?

Kipo: No, no, no, it was not that, it was more time. I think it was more like time, I was the youngest of nine, so mom didn’t really have that kind of time. You would think that living time would be a good time to teach your children a second language, but I think, by the time we moved into Anchorage, yes, I think they would have rather me assimilate.

Melissa: I see

Kipo: I really do.

Melissa: I think I remember Grandpa saying something about that, that’s kind of why he didn’t want to teach me, and they also had six kids, too, themselves, so I think I had a similar upbringing, of, culture wise, as relates to learning about art.

Kipo: Yeah, you’re not in one culture fully and not in the other one either.

Melissa: Yeah but Grandma still made us eat seal oil and she made us eat dry meat, we learned about the culture really through that aspect as well.

Kipo: I remember that I was always so proud of her for that and you kids would love it so much!

Melissa: Oh, I still do! *Laughter*

Kipo: I do too! I do too! And the only time I can get a real, good texture and feel to what I’m craving sometimes, I’ll eat a really, I’ll eat an olive, a green olive, that’s real salty, and briny, and that takes my little craving away.

Melissa: You know it’s, yeah.  

Kipo: if it’s stuffed with blue cheese or something like that so that it has a real tart after you swallow it still there.

Melissa: Mmhm, I find olive oil does it for me too, I find that olive oil has a similar taste to seal oil-so-

Kipo: Yes, yes.

Melissa: So, I’ll eat that sometimes.

Kipo: Well it’s good for you and, number one that stuff is really good for you. I take fish oil, I’ve been taking fish oil, as a supplement, in capsule form, since I was in my forties.

Melissa: Oh,ok.

Kipo: And my doctors can’t believe I’m almost seventy.

Melissa: Yeah. I think that, of all the kids I mean, you are the youngest, but still you have always had a youthful vibe, I guess.

Kipo: Well I feel like a child inside, I really do, I’m youthful inside. I think that’s why I make a lot of mistakes. *laughter* Because I’m still learning, and I love it, and I go to bed every night and I’m so thankful. Every single night I just hug myself and say “thank you for another day, thank you to my god, my creator, I tell you I’m not as crazy about religion as I was in my youth, only I say, because of the political thing, that has disappointed me but here we digress from the..  

Melissa: Yeah,

Kipo: -but anyway I cannot let go of that, that spirituality, of gratitude.

Melissa: Well I think that’s a great lead in to my next question: What does your artwork mean to you? Is there a type of message that you are trying to say in your artworks?

Kipo: Hmmm. I wrote a short piece in a brochure once and it was, it’s basically about survival. And that’s kind of what I see my cultural people, and the depiction of what I, the beauty I want people to see in my artwork and my culture is survival. Survival in such a beautiful way.

Melissa: Yeah. I think that’s a really great description.

Kipo: Yeah.

Melissa: So how do your ideas come to you? How do you seek out those opportunities, like how do you find the inspiration in making your pieces?

Kipo: Um, ok, sometimes an idea will come to me then I go search for that special rock. I used to go to Angel’s Camp California to a soapstone quarry which is three miles from here, and I’d pick out all my rocks and carry them home and what I would do, with some rocks, is, I would start with an idea and then look for that shape.

Melissa: I was going to ask you, do you ever find a piece that tells you what to make as well?

Kipo: Exactly, I was gonna get there with that one too, and then there’s other rocks that I have to study – I have to study at all angles, before I realize what I should make it into. There would always be these two processes: an idea that I’m looking for a shape, let’s say I did a hunter throwing a spear with a hand way up high in the air. I had to find a piece of stone that had a long extension on the top, right? So then, there was other rocks that I would find and I would see them interesting at the moment but then I would take them home and study them, and I would live with them. I’d put them in the living room. And I walk around them, or tip them over, and put them upside down, or put them in, you know, awkward positions.

Melissa: I remember Uncle Sonny and Grandpa talking about you have to be careful with like the cracks, right?

Kipo: Right.

Melissa: And make sure that you are placing them in a certain way so that the cracks don’t break off while you are working. I remember that.

Kipo: Exactly. It’s a constant, as you’re working on it, looking for cracks, and making sure that you’re not going to invest a lot of time in something that’s going to — which has happened to me, where I have spent a long time on something and then hit it the wrong way and it cracked in half.

Melissa: Yeah. So, when you were working with the stone, it sounds like you kind of have a real good visual image, do you ever see those images in your dreams? It’s kind of a weird question, but-

Kipo: I have, I have had dreams of –   sometimes they’re emotions.

Melissa: Yeah-

Kipo: And then you put that emotion of that dream into the stone. Which, one I could share on that is my mom. When I did mother and child pieces.

Melissa: And those are always — it’s funny, you have, I guess, kind of that image in some of your works, and Grandpa does,   remember that he had a mother and baby image and then Grandma had those with her dolls, and I think I see a lot of love in some of those pieces.

Kipo: Yeah, yeah. Oh! I gotta tell you about a story about your Mom’s, or, your grandma’s not your Mom’s-

Melissa: that’s fine-

Kipo: Your Grandma’s puppets-

Melissa: Uh huh-

Kipo: When Steve and I were very young, we went up on a cruise ship to Alaska with Steve’s family — and his nieces and nephews were almost in diapers practically, you know, they were just babies, anyway, we went shopping on 4th Avenue, we ended up on 4th Avenue, but it was nice, you know, it had turned into a nicer, touristy (place) by then, but anyway, she came out of the store and she says, “I saw something with the Tetpon name on it!’ and she showed me this little finger puppet, ok, and she was so happy with it, she was so excited to see my name in one of the stores, and so when she got elderly, and she was getting ready to pass away,   whenever we had family reunions in Michigan, she would put something special at the plate of whomever was sitting there, and sometimes little knick-knacks, sometimes jewelry, sometimes, you know, something special. She put that puppet on my plate! And she gave it to me!

Melissa: Oh, she did?

Kipo: Yeah! So, it says Lillian(?) Tetpon underneath it.

Melissa: You know there’s a few dolls out there that have my name on there-

Kipo: Wow-

Melissa: -because Grandma, I remember I wanted a pair of shoes, and I expected that Grandma would buy them for me, and instead she said “nope, you’re gonna make dolls’. So, I made three dolls.

Kipo: Woww.

Melissa: So, there’s three dolls out there with my name on there and Grandma’s name on there.


But your pieces – making dolls is really easy and quick – how long does it take for you to complete your pieces? How long does it take for you to make them?

Kipo: You know I have tried logging in and logging out, *laughter* I’ve tried that. I’ve wanted to know the answer to that question many times too. *laughs* And no. I have no idea. Sometimes a month, sometimes a couple of weeks, sometimes, three months. You know so, yeah, and the work would probably show it too.

Melissa: So have you experimented you said with like, you said you used to do some of the soapstone, was there any other material you worked with?  

Kipo: Alabaster, I did a lot of work with alabaster. A lot of steatite (?) and that, I’ve done that, which is kind of like an ocean green, almost translucent, milky in some parts and light green.

Melissa: Yeah, yeah, that one is really pretty.

Kipo: But I’ve done mostly soapstone and alabaster. I’ve done additions, let’s see, applications to my sculptures with ivory. And then I embellish with feathers and sinew, caribou sinew. And those materials I got from my dad.

Melissa: I see-

Kipo: He would send me baleen, he would send me his scraps *laughs* He would send me a box of scraps, of baleen, and ivory, I have, just boxes, small boxes, boxes of some of Dad’s cast-offs.

Melissa: Right. I mean, we don’t waste, right?

Kipo: No *laughter*, not ivory!

Melissa: Nope! So, one of the questions they want to know, and I’m kind of curious too, when you price your art, what do you price your pieces at?

Kipo: I had a really wonderful relationship with the curators, the owners of this gallery in San Francisco called “the Images of the North’

Melissa: I remember that one, yes.

Kipo: And I relied on them. And they were always –   sometimes they would double and triple whatever I suggested, so after a while, they would price them. And they would – they knew what the market could bear, and they knew the market better than myself, and I needed their help because I didn’t know. I didn’t know what to do. When I met that gallery in San Francisco, yeah, I mean, I was with them for almost thirty years.

Melissa: Yeah, yeah, I remember it was a beautiful-

Kipo: So, it was quite a relationship.

Melissa: Well, the last question I have is, we have a whole family of artists, we all are artistic in some way, how does the family support your art, what do they do to – is it just – did they give you suggestions when you were starting out or do they help you with getting the word out about your art? Do you still have contact with uncle Levi?   That’s the last question, just how do you guys collaborate?

Kipo: I do still talk with Levi, I haven’t talked with him for quite a while now, but we used to have visits for at least an hour, sometimes an hour and a half on the phone, and after he got the condition he has, um, uh, what is that called? Um, I talk with Mark and John, and then we send each other pictures about what we are doing I talk with Ron now and then, um. Walton is a little different, he’s fun to talk to, to a point until it gets political, and then it’s not fun anymore *laughs*

Melissa: Yeah.

Kipo: So, I try, you know I’m not really that, we text. I text a lot with Walton.

Melissa: That’s cool. Yeah, I think Mark is really busy with a lot of his artwork still up here, I know that for sure.

Kipo: Yeah, they seem to be really doing a nice business. Although with this pandemic shutdown it’s probably very difficult to look at what next year might be like. I hope by next year we may find some normalcy.

Melissa: Well, that’s all my interview, that’s every question I’ve asked. Do you have anything you want to add? Is there anything you would like to mention?

Kipo: Well, one of the things that I would like to mention if I was um, I guess, giving advice, or being a reflector of my work and how I got where I am today with the comfort, I know what I did in my past, I mean in my youth, was, everywhere I went, I always sought out a university and contacted them and told them who I was and they would give me space to do my work! I worked in the university of Palm Desert, and so, when I moved around to different places all over the southwest as a girl growing up, as a young woman, I would always contact artists and art people in the art world around me and find relationships and continue sharing and growing and, I just found it fun. So, I look back at my life and I say “you know what? I did, I had a lot of fun’.

Melissa: Good. I think that’s awesome. I think that that’s kind of the fortunate part of learning and collaborating with other artists, getting ideas, I think it’s really helpful, to be creative.

Kipo: But yeah, a lot of places I didn’t have room or space for a studio or a place to get really messy with rocks so I would just call the universities or the art department and they would give me space and welcome me in, my family! Everywhere I went, in Texas, I lived in Texas, and New Mexico and all over the southwest.

Melissa: That’s really cool. I appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions and give me some information and knowledge and-

Kipo: Well I’m really fascinated with, um what are you, um, this is a class that you are taking that you are doing a um,

Melissa: Just like an interview of the artist –

Kipo: But you are a very well-versed interviewer, *chuckles* You do a really good job at that!

Melissa: Well thank you, I appreciate it! I think it’s easier, in all honesty, when you are able to talk with someone that you know, *laughter* because you are able to draw on personal experiences that relate to how you are going through the interview.

Kipo: Well we know the same people!


Tetpon, K. (2020, April 29). Artist . (M. Langley-Jones, Interviewer)

Tetpon, K. (2020, April 30). Artist . Powerpoint of Art. Alaska: Kipo Tetpon.

World Travel Shop. (2020, April 30). Images of the North . Retrieved from Unionstreetshop.com: https://www.unionstreetshop.com/pages/StorePages/images_north.html