A look at the indigenous art in Alaska

John Oscar


Margaret: Hi, Everyone John you know me. These are my classmates. We are currently enrolled in Alaska native studies through the University of Alaska Fairbanks. So the reason we are interviewing you is this is a part of a living history project were we are trying to interview contemporary artists that might not be in our history books yet. So first we just want to thank you for setting aside some time for us. We appreciate it.

John: I am glad to.

Margaret: And we don’t want to keep you too long. So I am going to ask you guys when you speak to save some time just introduce yourself and then ask your question. John, how are you doing today?

John: Oh good good good, I’ve been busy working on a neat design for a friend of mine. One of my collectors. I’m working on. It looks pretty so far. I don’t have anything to sell cause all the stuff I make are gone. You 1 of them.

Margaret: Yeah, that is true. My mom and I recently purchased a piece of John’s together.

John: My name is John Oscar. I am originally from Tununak. A small village out in the Bering sea and on Nelson Island. Its about 160 miles west of Bethel from here. And I have studied at the University of Alaska Fairbanks under Ron Unagick. Unfortunately he passed away. Real good friend. Anyway I am glad to be here with you guys and hopefully we are all staying safe, staying home. And the study that I did in Fairbanks I did a lot of research on the whole library. Basically looking for material and any references to what I do as an artist today. I couldn’t find a lot of documents, references to stories, you know things like that. They didn’t have any. I went back to Ron Unagick, my old instructor and I told Ron I am kind of disappointed. I didn’t find any resources or references or documented reading material that I could actually base my studies on and he said yeah I know. I’ve done that before. I think its time for us to go out to Bethal to meet some real artists. We did. We met 3 exceptional artists that are all gone long gone. Master carvers, those guys those ancients. Oh boy the materials the tools that we use today would astound them. And the way they would do it. The work my ancestors had done were very complex. Wow, it was so neat to learn. They told a few stories and I learned a few things from them. So I am happy about that. I started my first introduction to art through Mom and the ivory carvers and the wood carvers, When they were still actually using the real kyack. Measured with you own body. That kind of kyack. It was measured after my dad and I grew up in an environment with nature. In a real kyack going up river by myself to check the net and go hunting with it at 12 years old. Isn’t that neat and it was so beautiful. Upbringing was great. Those kind of things influenced art. The elders, the stories that I hear from them their all gone and what i am trying to do with my work at this point is incorporated what I heard from the elders and what I know is there at the Smiththsian, Juneau, Fairbanks, and the museums that have a collections of all this work. I had some opportunities back in 1987-1989 I believe to see some of the work my ancestors did and in fact the old guys that are gone now had recognized some of the work that their uncles and aunts did, not aunts uncles. Women did not carve. The uncles Those stories like that. Gosh there is so much I want to share. I am turning 62 this next month and I am definitely planning on taking that what you call it retirement at an early age because I know with all the stuff that is happening today. All the threats to the social security things down there being threatened, but anyway getting back I have been entrusted into my work quite heavily. Mostly because of my back. I was working as supervisor for the customer service desk at AC here in Bethal because I was standing all day bent over, being nice all the time which wasn’t easy by the way, but any way I was forced to come back to my art, so I am glad I did. I can take care of my self whenever I am hurting bad, especially when the weather is changing. Yeah, my exposure to art has been it varies all sorts of ways. I like Picasos work. That first glance when I first glanced at the work I didn’t even know the name I was little young kid. That looks ugly, Who is this guy. Today his ugly work is worth millions. Even one of one his art pieces was sold for $4 million. A mask by a collector. So that kind of situations. Picaso had been influenced by Yupick masks and African masks and incorporated those ideas together into his work. So whatever i have learned from the past I always try to incorporate this angle that angle what form or formate I am going to use. The aspect of incorporating my stories, ideas, the special concepts, the materials I am going to be using. Most of the time comes to birth. I have an idea what it looks like in my mind sorta of in a way, but once I start producing the work, making the materials, small pieces of the work like in your case Margaret with your art piece. I don’t know how many pieces there individual pieces there are on that thing, but the concept is keeping the form within those I always keep diagonales, horizontals, the vertical, the vanishing point, the circle. I try and incorporate all those aspects into my work so that’s why work is always in demand is because I try and incorporate the flow into my work. Then at the same time you can feel that flow, that freedom, that thing, Instead of placing mask on the wall, my work actually looks at you. My masks actually watch with you as you’re moving around.
I don’t have anything… unfortunately (to show you) but I do have some samples of some stuff I can probably show you. My laptop doesn’t have this backside (camera) but hold that thought. (Moves into the next room and stops)

This is a good story before I show you something. Read that (shows us his gift shop sign that says: Gifts, Awards, Orders. Framed, Matted, OPEN M-F 11-6, S12-5, Closed Sunday.)
Starting a business here in Bethel during a recession, it didn’t go too well. Um, but certainly I have always persevered, I used to be a starving artist one time. I am serious about that, In Fairbanks by the way, From being unknown to being somebody that can produce work that is around the world now. I’ve got stuff in Israel, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, South America, Greenland, uh Canada, all that’s down in the 48. The internet system has worked out some. I am trying to keep myself contained, without overexposing myself, marketing myself so much, I don’t want to do that. The pace that I am going through right now, I enjoy. And the satisfaction that I get from the work itself. And the pricing, (the prices) are very comfortable between me and the customer. And you know, it’s years of work.

But anyway! I wanted to show you: Okay, I am going to turn the camera around. OK can you see this? I can’t promise with all this light in here.

Margaret: Yes we can see at that wood and uh, is that from tunt. Or is that from Bethel?

(we can’t hear him because the microphone is too far away)

Margaret: John, we can’t hear what you are saying.

John: Ok, Sorry. Can you hear? This is the …. (inaudible for about 20 seconds until he turns the camera back around)
Okay. Anyway, um,I’ve been doing art for quite a long time. Um, even work while I’m working. And it’s been a blessing, you know. It’s helped my family, raised four kids, two boys, two girls, unfortunately my wife had passed away about a long time ago back in ’99. Uh, but for me the artwork has been my sustainer. And family. With the expense of living up here in Alaska. Any questions?

Margaret: Yeah John, we have a lot of questions! You actually answered the first question which was: Where do your ideas come from. And you kind of gave us an answer to that already. From your ancestors and your background and also from the artists that you’ve met along the way, is that correct? Is there anything you want to add about that?

John: It’s uh, there’s not a whole lot of stories out there, but a lot of the stories that I’ve heard from, you know, my aunts and uncles, a lot of them already passed away, I’m trying to preserve whatever they said because some of that stuff is not recorded. Trying the best I can in my own way.

Margaret: Okay great, thanks for that. Ian, do you want to ask him the next question?

Ian: Yeah sure. Hi John. Great to meet you.

John: Nice to meet you,

Ian: So since this whole shutdown, and everybody is going off the rails, have you found it any more difficult to get ahold of the materials that you need that you use for your art?

John: Not really, I’ve been collecting material. And then I have a little shed outside. It’s a six by six wood shed that I use for drying out materials. I have all the material, raw material that I could…. Oh should show you my (inaudible but shows us a shelf covered with materials and tools)… stuff like that I’ve tried to collect materials… Oh, I am content. Because.I have ivory, I have baleen, I’ve got stuff I can turn into other works of art like earrings, I can do anything! I can make, oh gosh ceramics. Ceramics is kind of dirty for me, it’s really something that it’s not my forte. But uh, all the other forms of art I can do. I can do ivory, baleen, and soapstone. Um, the biggest sculpture I did in college (was) ten feet tall, five feet wide, in college. And it comprised of plaster of Paris, and it had representation of all the main animals and the hunter itself had my face molded on it.. Yeah. But, uh, yeah. Am I answering your question?(Laughs). There is so much I want to share!

Ian: Absolutely! You seem to be overflowing with information from every possible direction but you did absolutely answer my question. I think Noel has another one for you,

John: Sure.

Noel: Hi, my name is Noel and What impact do you think your work will have on future generations?

John: Oh man. There is nobody else doing the work I’m doing. I’m the only one in Alaska with this design that started it. And then right after I’ve been doing it for so many years, uh, I started seeing somebody else incorporate it in their own native style, it was great! Down in Southeast I believe, Tlingit designs. I have influenced many artists over the years. Oh, yeah, definitely the kids, the kids will definitely have records of this and I’m documenting this everything as much as I can so I can put it into a video format. Also I have video formats on my website. I do my own advertising on my website, based off my work and cut up into editing and all that stuff to make a maybe a one minute three minute video. I advertise also Facebook too. You can look on my Facebook. John Oscar or Oscars Originals. I post them on there, too.

Noel: I think Rodney has a (question) for you next.
John: Yeah.

Rodney : Hi John.

John: Hey Rodney!

Rodney: I’m Rodney. I ah…my question is which artist do you look up to most.

John: Which artist do I look up most? Ah golly!

Rodney: Or, more than one is fine. Just if do you have some people that you learn from that you really learned a lot, or do you…

John: First artist that I ever encountered was my mom. Beautiful intricate, ah, basketry weaving with no roughness or dullness looking kind of fine quality that’s where I got my influence is fine quality works. She always emphasis fine quality. I know that is from my mom.

Rodney: Very good.

John: Better get the fine quality work that needs to be done. If I do something, I will not sell it unless I am feeling it’s done. That kind of…I put it on my wall and I look at it ‘Yeah it looks off, is it done, boy I wish I could keep that means it’s a seller. But anyway, yeah my favorite artist is number one mom, then ah, my dad, definitely carved and then my uncle whom I used to look at all the time ‘He’s making harpoons! Ah, yeah, harpoons, hard ivory harpoon tipped, ivory. I watched those guys. I ran across books of Picasso, and books about all these other artists, ‘Oh Michelangelo! Oh wow!’I was goin’ ‘I wish I can carve like him!’ (laughs)

And then Michelangelo, all those renaissance folks and all those, oh gosh, there’s so many artists.

Rodney: That’s great.

John : Alvin Amoson is also my favorite. Look at his work and my work. I was influenced by his work. We are very much the same. He’s got his own style, I’ve got my own style. He was another one of my influences. And then the other thing, ah, Ron Senungetuk, Glen Simpson…ah, boy, it’s endless. I have no number one favorite, but number one is my mom always had quality.

Rodney: Very good. I appreciate that. Family means a lot and they…

John: I, I, I actually did illustrations for her, at eleven years old, drawing little birds um, and uh, sledding scenes, kayak scenes, that kinds of things, and she would cut them up and turn them into art on her baskets.

Rodney: Great. Thank you.

John: Anybody? Anybody else?

Sheri: I’ll just pop right in and um, John Oscar, my name is Sheri. I am so honored to ah, get to have this chance to speak with you and to listen to you speak about your art and yourself. Um, I always end up with this, just this incredible rush of so many questions so I’m gonna try to condense them. If they seem a little complex, please correct me. Um,
you mentioned incorporating a lot of the fundamental components of art with line structure and
horizon line and different balances and things, and then you also mentioned early on having encountered some
difficulties in finding a lot of direction, and so you had to go back and uh, go back to instructors and say ‘Hey I need more guidance.’

John: I had to come back to Bethel.

Sheri: Yeah…yeah, so um, with that, and then also mentioning the stories and the things that were from ancestors, and how they speak through you, through your art, and um, that connection, um, do you ah, do you ever encounter difficulties as a person with this creative gift and the artistic talent, do you have difficulties sometimes connecting all of the things into this …because it sounds complicated. It sounds um, layered dynamic of having to put …and then the materials, how you work the materials with

John: It’s like the first question that you asked. I have this complex array of things I have and I’m trying to condense it to this single form, the one single form and one single question. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. I do incorporate a lot of the uh, yes, basic technique methods
of art into it, but at the same time,
a lot of the designing I do it right in my head. I have a three dimensional mind. I…uh, anyway, artists are weird (laughs.) Not you guys, Just me (laughs.) uh, yeah, definitely the difficulty in that is the concept involved. Balancing my need for commercial purpose, or my need for myself as an artist, ah, and always I’ve incorporated where I’ve learned …some of you’ve probably have seen my work online too, already, too, right…incorporating the same concept the same method all the time ,but looking for a way something that’s different that’s challenging, just challenge overtime how I do a single piece I’m in fact I’m getting ready to do…

John: I’m gonna be using these other carving designs into that piece. I’m using a panel on the backside of the canvas and then I’ll be putting these masks on to my art canvas over here. Eskimo dancers. I’m trying to think, between, is it going to be horizontal or is it going to be vertical. And both sides I have ideas so I’m going to make another stretch so I can do both of them. I’ll be there but certainly incorporating all those concepts is the key is simplicity.

Sheri: I definitely can relate, I will always be a beginning artist. I think and so as far as being able to balance and negotiate the marketplace and your own creative freedom but there is also, you know, one thing I think stands out is just so, your excited about, doing what you do and has there ever been a time where was was some kind of block between yourself and have you ever really not wanted to do it and how would you advise other artists to get past that?

John: Mom had told me one time, “I don’t want to do it, i’m lazy’, laziness is one thing and she said, “We don’t (Native Language)’ and some years later on some old man says the same thing when I was in my twenties or so. It was the same thing, (Native Language) that means, “One who idiles, gains nothing’ and mom told me, yea you’ll start out lazy at first and you’ll get lazy. So I’m always forcing myself sometimes to physically actually to do something and I forgot I was lazy so its so true in production. Just force yourself always, even if you make a mistake, fine, turn it into something else. It’s really important to not fall yourself into something that blocks you from producing. I tell my daughter, “yea, don’t ever, ever, ever be afraid to make a mistake. Look, it’s finally always the surfaces on it, it took a little while to make this piece. And she makes and I make an (inaudible) it turn it into something else. Anyway, production wise, yea its a… I know what you mean, it’s pretty complex and we have to simplify it all the time.

Sheri: Great, Thank you

Margaret: Um, Ok John. You had another question but I think your demeanor answers it. Somebody wanted to ask, “Do you feel like your world view is more optimistic or pessimistic, and do you Ian feel like you have a good idea of the answer to that question just by hanging out with John a little bit? (24:47)

Ian: Oh, yea, I’m gonna go on the optimistic side of things. Definitely, but I do have another question, if you don’t mind ugh, “So, how do you feel about the things that you created in the past? When you look at them, what does that bring out? (28:04)

John: Oh yea, I’ve actually um been thinking about, like I said, I’ve been documenting as much as I can as I go along. All the past work I’ve looked and the challenge I pose myself every single time I do an art piece to do better than what I did, how else can I do this differently, um, it gets boring doing commercial work um sometimes you know, where I know a certain design of mine sells really quick because the pricing, the materials used and the less time it takes me. Um, balancing those with fine art and I always try to achieve fine art every single time anyhow because it’s appreciated, the work is well received by many people around the world and i’m very happy to be doing what i’m doing and actually you know have had opportunity to meet more older artists as I went along, they’re all gone now um I know of all but one carver left, an old man. But anyway, my hobash is (inaudible) but when I respond I start (inaudible) too much.

Ian: You did, thank you so much.

John: Yea

Margaret: Ok, so it’s been about half an hour, does anyone have any burning questions. I know John I have a couple for you but I can ask you later, they’re just about your paint choices. I can text you later about that but does anybody have any other questions they’d like to ask? (29:58)

Sheri: Margaret, did you want me to go ahead and add the last one? (30:04)

John: Sure, that’s fine.

Margaret: Yea, go for it

Sheri: Ok, um, when you have, you know, people admiring your work and your able to see that interaction between them and your pieces, what is it that you want to have transpire in that space, what is the message that you hope is being transmitted or translated between the viewer and your work

John: It’s like when a person, you know, give you something you really love, you know, that you receive something, it’s like a gift, it’s like im gifting someone. Uh, that’s how I feel because when I’m giving an art piece away and I sell it for a certain price, I feel comfortable with the price and the customers feel comfortable with the price and my purpose is to make money, yes but the main part of it is I’ll respect the comfort it gives the customer, the satisfaction received, my satisfaction when it’s all been done and all the pieces i’ve done so far have been satisfactory.
And then one of my cousins came up to me, “Yea, I went to a garage sale, I got one of your art pieces for fifteen dollars.’ I asked what kind it was and it was one of those 3D art pieces that cost around three hundred dollars!’ So I guess they didn’t have any room, but that’s not the only time it happened. Another story that brings to mind is; one time I had to relocate from Anchorage after my wife had passed away, relocate all the kids out to Mekoryuk and I was going to go out there, and I didn’t have time to sell this one art piece. A corner art is designed for corners, you know, the framing is cornered, 45 — 90 degrees, the glass is like that too, and the matting is like that, and I was the only one coming out with this kind of stuff. It was worth a thousand dollars. ____________________(difficult to understand) and I asked him about it and “yeah it got stolen’, and then I posted on my website saying that it was stolen, and about four months or five months later a couple apologetically told me that they had bought this piece from this one guy for five hundred dollars in a bar. (Laughing) Anyway, it was kind of silly, and then they went through, and were going through a divorce and they were fighting over it, ah, that’s not the only story. In other stories I was selling out artwork, this one collector from up north — I’m not going to say any names, had collected every single year of my 3d art pieces. Probably worth around 3 grand, somewhere in there, maybe less. He comes up to me kind of like I did something wrong, and I thought what did I do now, he was coming up to me I had everything in my booth, and he told me “John, do you know what happened to me? You know, I’ve been going through a divorce, one day I come home and all my wall that’s reserved for your stuff is gone(laughs) So yeah, I got stories about my work.

Margaret: That’s pretty funny John, I know like, my mom, so I really wanted one of Johns’ art pieces so I showed it to my mom and she actually purchased it, so she has it, but I remember it was the story that went along with the art piece that really made my mother and I want the piece. We bought the piece, I’m probably going to pronounce it…

John: — Belahuyuk

Margaret: How do you say it?

John: Bela ha yuk, belahayuk

Margaret: So it’s kind of about, I texted John and said I want Nessie, and I don’t think he knew what I meant, but in my culture, which is Irish, the Loch Ness monster, right.

John: Yeah our Loch Ness makes the rivers (laughing)

Margaret: So just as John is from and island my family is from Ireland which is also an island, so we kind of felt like we were buying back some of our history, so every time my mom and I look at that piece we’re going to smile and I think that’s why we purchased the piece was just to kind of get a little endorphins every time we look at it.

John: Uh huh, that’s great

Sheri: If I may, I actually have one other question, as an artist and someone who is in the business of selling art for the purpose of sustaining yourself, making income, do you reserve some pieces, that you feel, as you’re creating them that they already have a purpose and destination, and nothing else will do, and do you have pieces that are very special to yourself that you won’t sell?

John: Yeah, there’s, oh boy, how many, I got one in Tununak(I think this is the town name) and one over here that I’m saving, on the side you know, so when I do pass my kids will have something to remember me by. It’s usually the first things that I incorporate, I design, this is the they guy that started the whole thing. The spirit dancer came to me, in my dream one time, and I heard this deep thump -thump-thump drumming of Eskimo drums really loud, and I saw a light coming toward me it was all pitch black, it was a guy drumming and swinging his arms and everything like that. And he went up to me right in front of my face and said “here it is’ and I woke up. And, I’ve got stories, you know the first person I ever saw in my whole life, my first consciousness, my first awareness, my first time my eyes opened, my first time my consciousness awoke I was a little boy, and I didn’t see my mom I didn’t see anybody else, I heard somebody in the house beckoning me so I went inside, there was nobody in there, I was looking for my mom, I could hear my moms voice too. But I heard something on top of the shelves, I looked up and there’s this little man, a few inches tall, beckoning me to come up, so I went up a nd I looked at him in front of me, right in front of me telling me stories, trying to tell me something but I couldn’t understand, so he spoke faster and I saw flickers of light, life, and they were pictures actually, of all the events that I was going to go through in my lifetime. It’s true as you age it slows down, all those spiritual stuff, but I do have, have had encounters. I got more stories, but that’s for later in my book maybe. Any questions? Any more?

Ian: Are you writing a book?

John: no I just write little paragraphs, and I keep saving those little bit over time, just go to my website and look under stories and you can see my method of writing skill. I’m not a writer, but I do have, I feel comfortable telling stories. I’m thinking about children’s books too. I’m thinking about books, hats, that’s where at already out there anyway.

Margaret: Yeah John, it can be hard to limit yourself, to you know, one thing at a time

John: Yeah, exactly. What I’m doing now I feel comfortable, because it’s one spectrum. Because when I start branching out to other areas, like um, commercializing into mugs and hats and stuff, that’s a lot of time consuming time. That takes away my time from valuable fine production.

Margaret: Okay john, I think we’re going to let you go, cause it’s been, we could talk to you all day

John: I go more! Wait for my book maybe

Margaret: I thought you only had half an hour, do you have more time?

John: Unless you got somebody, I got a few more.

Margaret: Does anybody have any more burning questions? If not I’m going to let John go back to work.

Sheri: I will say, I could ask, every one question and the response lead to so many more questions, and I think that if there is any embodiment of what an artist is is somebody who inspires curiosity as well and make people think and I think that that really speaks for the soul of an artist that comes in. So I have a lot of questions..

John: Go to my website, contact me

Sheri: I will, I will, thank you so much.

John: Join the membership.

Margaret: That’s actually how I contacted him first, was through email, you can always email John and he’ll get back to you. I posted it in the chat feed if you need that. I just wanted to say quyana to our host, John, thank you for your time, we know that your time is valuable, that you could be using it to make art, and we appreciate you using it to talk to us today.

John: Oh, yeah, I’m happy to. Ok Great, and Keep safe, alright, talk to you later.

Ian: Thanks John.

Sheri: Thank you john.