Local Native artist headed to Magadan for ivory carving festival

Jason Tetpan in his workshop in downtown Anchorage the day before he leaves for Magadan, Russia.
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Jason Tetpon, an Inupiaq carver from Anchorage, has hardly ever flown in an airplane, until recently didn’t have a passport, and has traveled outside of the state just once. Now he’s going halfway across the world to show off his artwork.

Tetpon was chosen to take part in a Native art festival in Magadan, Russia, along with representatives from nine other countries for the International Festival of World Ivory Carving Art.

“This will be the first time I’ll travel internationally, Russia - I’ve really just been lookin’ on the internet,” says Tetpon, who works in a Native artists’ co-op in downtown Anchorage.

He says he knows virtually nothing about the country or the region. While Magadan is a sister city of Anchorage - the relationship was established in 1991 - cultural projects have slowed since their heyday in the 90s.

The region is home to a variety of Indigenous groups including Evens, Koryaks, Chukchis, Orochs, Chuvans, Itelmens, and Yupik, who are relatives of Tetpon’s group, Inupiaq.

Still, he doesn’t have much idea of what to expect from the people.

“I have no idea on their traditions and stuff - I’m really nervous to go, really anxious,” he said.

Jason Tetpon's work station at an artists' co-op in downtown Anchorage. He uses photos printed from online to copy the anatomy and forms of his subjects.

Anna Vernaya is the director of the Russian Cultural Center in Alaska and is accompanying Tetpon on the trip. She says that this trip is extremely important to develop relationships between the two countries and the Indigenous people that have historic ties.

“This is very important also because the Native people has a Russian roots,” she said. “If you will see the name of the streets, or the name of the art, you can find a Russian last name, like Shelikoff and others. Russian names continue to live in Alaska.”’

Tetpon arranges a display in his workshop in downtown Anchorage. "I have four polar bears that are hunting bears they have to break through the ice and they’re going after the seals - so that’s the one I want to bring to Russia," he said.

Vernaya, who is originally from Magadan, was made aware of the festival through friends in the city, which formerly was known as being the epicenter of the GULAG work camps. Her friend, who worked for the Russian Artists’ Union of Magadan, asked her to find some Alaska Native artists who would be willing to join. She quickly found Tetpon, who worked in Alaska Arts Alliance on 4th Ave.

"Jason Tetpon is a very very talented person, and very, very smart in many, many ways. It was very easy to work with him,” she said.

Though English is her second language, Vernaya said it took a short time to forge a friendship, which will surely be tested with the grueling travel plans.

“We did find a way to understand each other because my English was not so perfect, but we are leaving tomorrow. It takes almost forty hours to get to Magadan,” she said.

And they are hoping that that ability to understand each other can also help spread understanding between their countries.

“This is very important for us to continue to have a very close relationship between different kinds of artists, it can be carvers, painters, dancers, theater, so we have lots of possibilities to know each other better through cultural exchange,” she said.

Tetpon serves Pel'meni, a traditional Russian dumpling to guests at a send-off party on Wednesday, Oct. 17.

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