Visiting artists Michael, Isaak embody modern Native Alaska art

  • Joel Isaak shows a mask made of fish skin he was working on this Monday during a three-day residency at the Pratt Museum. -Photo by Michael Armstrong, Homer News
  • Isaak models a fish skin vest he made. The buttons are vertebrae or backbones from a halibut.-Photo by Michael Armstrong, Homer News
  • “Painted Community”-Photo by Michael Armstrong, Homer News
  • Drew Michael discusses his work, “Reaching Out,” at the First Friday opening of his show, “Spaces Within,” at Bunnell Street Arts Center.-Photo by Michael Armstrong, Homer News
  • “Spirit of the Manimal”-Photo by Michael Armstrong, Homer News
  • “Space Within”-Photo by Michael Armstrong, Homer News

When Homer artist Ron Senungetuk curated “Inspirations: An Alaska Native Art Exhibition” in September 2010 at the Pratt Museum, he sought art by Alaska Natives that could be considered fine art. A professor emeritus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Senungetuk founded UAF’s Native Arts Center almost 50 years ago. He started the center as a reaction against the cliché of Native art as tourist art.

“I wanted Native art to be better,” Senungetuk said then about his show. 

Two young Alaska Native artists who visited Homer last weekend show how they have embraced Senungetuk’s ideal. Yu’pik artist Drew Michael of Anchorage has an exhibit, “Spaces Within,” showing at the Bunnell Street Arts Center through Sept. 2. At the Pratt Museum, Kenaitze artist Joel Isaak did a three-day residency. Michael carves masks and Isaak sews fish skins. Their art represents a synthesis of millennia-old techniques with modern imagery.

For example, Michael’s self-portrait mask, “I Can’t Believe I Ended Up Like This,” is carved from wood, but it includes elements like a mangled pair of eyeglasses and hammered copper. During his residency, Isaak worked on a pair of salmon-skin boots. They won’t be utilitarian but sculptural, a piece that also includes a skin mask made from a plaster cast of his sister’s face. 

Born prematurely with his twin in Bethel, Michael, 30, almost didn’t survive infancy. He lived with foster parents until adopted by an Alaska family. His parents stayed in Alaska so he could maintain some connection to his Yu’pik roots, and he grew up in Eagle River. 

In 1997, Michael took a carving workshop with Joe Senungetuk, Ron Senungetuk’s brother, in Anchorage. Through the Alaska Native Heritage Center, he also studied with master carver Kathleen Carlo.

“To have a rock star like Kathleen teach me was an amazing honor,” Michael said at an artist’s talk last Friday at Bunnell.

Carlo taught him the technique of using modern materials like nails and rivets in his masks.

“I started out trying to emulate tradition, but I realized it wasn’t my story,” he said.

Michael’s masks use traditional Yu’pik mask elements like holes that represent openings for spirits, “things that are unseen flowing in and out of that space,” he said.

To create contrast in his masks, Michael scorches and burns the woods, especially around holes. In the ancient tradition, masks would have been made for ceremonies and other occasions, and then burned or buried in the tundra. Scorching his masks evokes that tradition, he said.

Some masks can be used to connect to community, Michael said, like his “Community Mask.” At Bunnell, a pen hung below the mask, and visitors were invited to write on the mask. People have written things like “kiss a mask” on it. That would be OK, Michael said.

“One thing I think that’s important with art is you should be able to touch it,” he said. “It’s pretty durable.”

Several of his masks beg to be handled, like a large mask that stands almost 3-feet tall on a stand. He made a similar series of 10 masks for a collaboration with artist Liz Ellis, “Aggravated Organisms.” Michael carved and Ellis painted masks showing types of diseases that affect Alaska Natives, like diabetes, alcoholism and suicide.

Isaak, 25, of Soldotna is a member of the Kenaitze tribe. He helped make some of the pieces in the Anchorage Museum’s “Dena’ina q’ Huch’ulyeshi: the Dena’ina Way of Living,” including a sculpture showing people hunting beluga whales. That piece is now at the Ted Stevens International Airport, but a traveling version of “Dena’ina q’ Huch’ulyeshi” shows at the Pratt Museum through Sept. 1. Isaak also sculpted the faces of two women in a display of them cleaning fish. For the Dena’ina Wellness Center in Kenai, Isaak made a cast bronze sculpture of a woman at fish camp. In making the faces, Isaak said he wanted to show the people not looking back, but looking forward.

“The culture is still here,” he said.

During his three-day residency from last Saturday to Monday, he worked behind a table piled with salmon skins. Isaak also wore a salmon skin vest with halibut vertebrae buttons. Salmon skin sewing as art and tradition has made a comeback, Isaak said. Isaak is largely self-taught. He read everything he could about treating and curing skin. Later, he learned from sewer Helen Dick, from Point Possession on the north Kenai Peninsula.

While working on his bachelor of fine arts at the University of Alaska Fairbanks he also took chemistry classes, helpful in learning how to tan fish skins. This fall, Isaak continues his studies in graduate school at Alfred University, Alfred, N.Y.

Isaak uses the thick salmon skin of chum salmon or thinner skins like red salmon. After scraping the skin of scales and fat, he treats it with rubbing alcohol and glycerin. Using an ancient technique, he also dyes the skin with alder bark. That helps remove the fish odor. A piece of tanned chum skin feels as soft as deer hide and is just as tough.

Salmon skin also can be treated by wind and the elements, called “winter bleaching.” When he lived in Fairbanks, Isaak hung up skins on a line outside his house. Freezing and thawing, sun and wind made the skins softer. One time when he had to drive frequently from Fairbanks to Glennallen, he tied skins to the roof of his car. At a fish camp he also put skins out to be whipped in the winds.

“The elders said, ‘What are you doing?’ We haven’t seen that in years,’” Isaak said.

In post-European contact culture, Dena’ina men don’t sew, a tradition Isaak knows he’s going up against. Some men think it’s taboo to touch needles and will bring bad luck. In pre-contact Dena’ina culture, men knew how to sew, Isaak said. They had to. Every man carried a sewing kit so he could make repairs on hunting or fishing trips.

As a Dena’ina learning about his culture, Isaak said he chose to focus on the material culture, though he now also is learning the language. Dena’ina stories can be instructions about traveling or even how to make a certain kind of stitch, he said.

One project he wants to pursue would be incorporating Dena’ina text into his art. For example, he’s thinking of having a sketch of a bird, with Dena’ina words referencing parts of the bird. The image would be printed on skin and then sewn into something like the back of a jacket.

Isaak said he respects his culture, but there’s a lesson in that, too.

“Dena’ina lifestyle and culture is ‘you adapt to what’s around you,’” he said. 

Michael Armstrong can be reached at

Drew Michael

Spaces Within

Aug. 1-Sept. 2

Bunnell Street Arts Center

Joel Isaak


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