An Anchorage artist who has exhibited at Bunnell Street Arts Center and the Pratt Museum last week received a $100,000 award from a national arts organization.
Nathan Shafer was one of 41 artists and 35 projects to receive a total of $3.5 million in awards from Creative Capital, a New York City based arts funding organization started with major funding by the Andy Warhol Foundation. Shafer’s award will be split between direct project funding and career development services.
The award supports Shafer’s “Wintermoot” project that combines graphic novels, new media and collaborative storytelling. Set in an alternate history that expands on his “Dirigibles of Denali” exhibit shown at the Pratt Museum in the summer of 2018, “Wintermoot” will be a series that tells the stories of characters created in collaboration with indigenous Alaska and other cultures.
Shafer said he has been applying for the Creative Capital award for 10 years. He’s the second Alaskan to receive a Creative Capital award, after the late Teri Rofkar, a Chilkat weaver from Sitka who won an award in 2012 and later died in 2016.
More than 4,000 artists applied for the 2020 awards, said Michael Gibbons, director or marketing and communications for Creative Capital.
“It’s crazy competitive,” Shafer said. “They (Creative Capital) really don’t have any bad artists. They’re really at the top of their game.”
Raised in a military family, Shafer, 41, lived around the world before settling in Anchorage. He graduated from the University of South Florida in Tampa and got a master of fine arts in digital media in 2008 from Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. A special education teacher, his middle school students include autistic or neurodivergent children.
Shafer’s 2018 Pratt Museum show exhibited art from his “Dirigibles of Denali” book, an anthology about domed cities in Alaska’s interior. Shafer uses augmented reality, or AR, a digital technique that adds layers of images to two-dimensional works through smart phones or tablets. With an app, the viewer holds the smart phone over a painting or printed page, and a code in the work causes an image to appear on the smart phone. The app Shafer used for his Pratt show no longer functions, and he’s working with a developer to do a new app.
“Wintermoot” includes augmented reality features, but it’s also a collaborative project that brings in people from Alaska’s diverse cultures. Shafer has been working with writer David Karabelnikoff. Set in an alternate reality, it’s a classic superhero and science fiction comic book, but with a twist. Shafer said he was hesitant to do superheroes.
“We just leaned into the cape and cowl aspect of it,” he said. “We indigenized the cape and cowl. Anything that was a mask or outfit, we indigenized it.”
For example, the Alaska Native superheroes have masks, but they’re based on Inuit snow goggles. One of his characters is a transgender African American man; another is an autistic Dena’ina woman.
“A lot of it, especially the more I work with David (Karabelnikoff) is about intersectionality,” Shafer said. “The characters come from different cultures but work together.”
Bunnell Street Arts Center Artistic Director Asia Freeman praised the indigenous aspect of Shafer’s work.
“He has an artistic dialogue with contemporary indigenous artists that have informed that inspiration and shaped the characters and the stories himself that make it possible for him to consider such an ambitious goal,” she said.
Shafer said he has tried to be careful about cultural appropriation and works with representatives of Alaska tribes. One Unangan elder came up with an idea Shafer embraced.
“He looked at ‘Wintermoot’ and almost immediately said, ‘How are you getting this into the hands of rural Alaskan kids?’” Shafer said he and Karabelnikoff decided to make the intellectual property of “Wintermoot” open to any Alaska kid.
That collaboration is the social practice part of Shafer’s project. “Social practice” has begun to emerge as a discipline more artists have embraced, Gibbons of Creative Capital said.
“There’s more awareness of that as an art form,” he said. “It’s evolving very quickly. … The artists are pushing us in that direction.”
Gibbons noted that Creative Capital doesn’t favor any one discipline, just as it doesn’t seek out artists from particular regions.
“We look at all art forms. We don’t factor one over the other,” he said. “… It’s really the strongest work we see that gets an award.”
Shafer and Karabelnikoff also have created the N-Collective to support their work and its production and distribution. The N-Collective also is a collaboration with Cook Inlet Regional Inc. and Bunnell Street Arts Center. Bunnell serves as a fiscal sponsor so The N-Collective can get grants. Bunnell also sells the “Wintermoot” books.
“There’s not a lot of capacity across Alaska to do this for artists these days,” Freeman said “… This is potentially a bigger and more profound level of support.”
Creative Capital started in 1999 to provide support for artists beyond federal grants and in response to controversy over arts funding then. The Warhol Foundation was the founding organization, Gibbons said.
“They thought it was important to create a new venture, philanthropy for risky arts … anything that was provocative in a way that traditional arts funding would not be a good fit for,” he said.
The Creative Capital award includes an aspect other grants don’t always include: helping to develop an artist’s career. Shafer will attend workshops and meetings with other grantees and do what Shafer called “speed dating” with promoters.
“It’s a model that we’ve been refining since we started in 1999,” Gibbons said. “… The idea is that artists are entrepreneurs and they need investment partners.”
Freeman said she’s thrilled for Shafer’s Creative Capital award.
“It’s extremely exciting to see Nathan and an Alaskan artist to have an award of this significance,” she said. “It’s exciting for Alaska and for him.”