For a group of artists who have never before worked with stone, the task was daunting: take a class in sculpture. Produce a work of art in a week. And while you’re at it, let tourists watch.
That was the scene this week at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, where five young Native artists were paired up with two seasoned carvers, Larry Ahvakana and Patrick Stone.
Both artists bring decades of experience. Ahvakana, an Inupiat raised in Barrow’s whaling culture, has received international recognition for his sculpture. Stone, who is based in New Mexico, is well known in the Southwest for his abstract shapes.
“Oh, they’re just taking right off,” says Stone with an air of pride in his protégés. “There are professional artists out there, who have been working for a decade, who aren’t using these techniques. And these guys didn’t know any better than to just go with it.”
The week-long workshop is a partnership between the Alaska Native Arts Foundation and the Heritage Center. It’s just the kind of opportunity that Ahvakana and Stone would have liked to have had, when they were just starting out – an artist-to-artist experience that brings mentorship and a chance to form lasting friendships. After the completing the class, the artists will be able to keep most of the tools, which are expensive and not what a beginning carver would be able to afford.
And while these artists are new to carving, they are not new to art.
Robin Lovelace-Smith, a Tlingit from Sitka, brought one of her masks with her – a guardian spirit, fashioned out of gleaming steel. Although this tradition was once silenced, Lovelace-Smith’s mastery of metal speaks volumes about her passion for culture.
Under a large tent on the Heritage Center campus, she works at what looks like a crescent moon.
“It’s a hand hammer. Otherwise known as a stone maul,” said Lovelace-Smith, who draws inspiration from ancient stone tools. “The bottom is like the head of a hammer.” She marvels at how her ancestors were able to fashion stone implements without today’s modern tools.
Ahvakana appreciates his tools. “Using power tools help to establish the idea right away. People get discouraged, because they can’t move fast enough,” he said.
Although Ahvakana is in the teacher role, he is also working alongside his students. He is carving an Ainu elder out of grey limestone. The Ainu are known as the “First People of Japan,” eventually assimilated by the Japanese who came thousands of years later.
“They’re pretty tribal people. I like their traditional ways,” said Ahvakana. “I kind of empathize with people that hold onto their traditions.”
While most of Ahvakana’s work has focused on traditional Inupiat culture, his approach is thoroughly modern. One of his goals for the workshop: to teach the students about the relationship between culture and art through example.
“Culture changes,” he says. “That is growth. That is something that changes your ideas. That beautifies the culture, instead of stagnating in a box.”
Drew Michael, a mask carver of Yup’ik and Inupiat heritage, says he was afraid of stagnating – which is why he applied for the workshop.
He works with wood and currently has masks on exhibit at the Anchorage museum. One represents the spirit of fire and has hair made of flames.
His stone carving has a little man embedded in it.
“Everybody has a soul,” says Michael. “And sometimes I like to represent and think about myself as a little person inside of me that’s trying to get out.”
For now, Michael is trying to free his little man from limestone. He also wrestles with the working in an art form that’s in the round.
“I’ve had to focus on a view from the top,” said Michael. “And from the back. From the side. Usually, I just focus on the front.”
Michael was adopted at birth and has lived much of his life removed from his culture. His art, like his spirit mask with flames, has sparked a search for identity. And this week, he is burning with excitement about this new challenge.