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Saturday, July 29, 2017

Alaskan Art

Halibut Cove Artists Colony, (not very) near Cordova, Alaska.
About this time fifty years ago, I was finishing up my second year of duty in the U.S. Air Force stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base just outside of Anchorage, Alaska. It's strange, after fifty years, the things that have left an impression on me. I remember the mountains and landscape of course, and the "big city" of Anchorage (below), but I was not yet much of an artist so it was more the little things I recall...the very little things...the mosquitos.
Anchorage Skyline, 2013, Scott Clendaniel.
(The air force base was on the far side from this view)
Handmade sealskin seals--the largest
one is about three inches tall.
The military sprayed their installations for mosquitoes (thanks God). The Alaskans simply coped, and magnified them somewhat. The ranged in size from about an inch to virtually invisible; and quite frankly, it was the latter which were the most bothersome. Alaska is big all over, and what isn't, gets exaggerated by the nat-ives to match the scale of everything else. You should see the "moose-quitos" (below, left), which they sell to gullible tourists (like me)--so named because they're made from shellacked moose poop. As for other souvenirs, the only ones I brought home were on a slightly more elevated plane, the tiny sealskin seals seen above-right. Thankfully, they're not larger than life.
When it comes to making the most of the three-month
summer tourist season, Alaskans are nothing if not creative.
I don't think it would be going to far to say that I "became" an artist while in Alaska. What the hell, there was nothing else to do on those 18-hour-long winter nights. I painted my first "professional" portraits there. What I didn't paint was the stunning landscape. That had to wait until I got back to Ohio and was in college. Mount Eyak (below) dates from 1973, and is the only Alaskan landscape I've ever done (better late than never).
Copyright, Jim Lane
Mount Eyak, 1973, Jim Lane
When it comes to Alaskan artists, there are three types, the indigenous Alaskan tribal artists; long-term resident artists originally from the "lower forty-eight;" and artists like myself-- tourists and military personnel who are just passing through, who snap a few pictures, then do their painting back home. Painting on location is something few Alaskan tourists would ever consider (the mosquitos, remember?).

The best way to see the most...
The Alaska Railroad, Meghan Taylor.
Decorative "art" as a concept did not traditionally exist among indigenous Alaskan natives. Objects were utilitarian, although decorated in ways that conveyed images of spiritual or physical activity. It wasn't until Europeans and Asians first made contact with coastal Alaskans in the 17th-century that non-utilitarian art objects began to be traded in exchange for metal implements, cloth, and foodstuffs such as tea, flour, or sugar. Many objects traded were only valued for their functionality, such as clothing woven of grass, harpoon tips carved from the ivory walrus tusks; rainproof outerwear sewn from membranes in the intestines of seals; and animal skins valued for their warmth and durability. Gradually, these items were refined to be more decorative, as a way to increase their trading value.

Even today, as in the past, virtually all authentic native
art is made for export or for the tourist trade.
While the art forms were, and still are, as different as the cultures of the Native peoples who make them, nearly all such works evoke a common reference to living in harmony with nature and all its many creatures. No part of a hunted animal, whether fished or trapped, could be wasted. It would not be uncommon to see boots or "mukluks" made of bearded seal skin for soles, salmon skin for the outer layer, and straps of caribou or deerskin, dyed with berries.

A Tlingit totem pole, (detail),
Ketchikan, Alaska
There is a continuous blurring of the dis-tinctions between "traditional" versus "con-temporary" Alaskan art. Next to the ubi-quitous tribal totem poles just outside, inside Alaskan art galleries, a visiting art lover would find wall-size paintings, three-dimensional mobiles, life-size bronze cast-ings, and marble sculp-tures. Displayed nearby there would be bears carved from walrus tusks, along with fine jewelry etched of copper and silvers. Women buyers could admire Nephrite jade and musk ox horn polished into bracelets, or bentwood boxes carved from coastal white cedar trees. in leaving, tourists pass baskets of infinite shapes and designs, made from birch bark, woven spruce root, beach grasses or the baleen from a bowhead whale, all intricately woven and shaped into vessels of all sizes (below).

Alaskan Native basketry.
And finally, there's the westernized Alaskan art which celebrates the landscape, and often uses it as a background for an even stronger infatuation with Alaskan wildlife. Much, if not most, of such art is the work of artist who have only recently or temporarily adopted the state simply for the purpose of trying to capture the state's native beauty. Often you can spot such art by its photographic approach to the landscape or by title. For instance, only an artist from Florida would name her Alaskan landscape simply Alaska (bottom).

Beautiful painting...terrible title.


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