Sometimes the line between life and art disappears, which is what happened Friday during a reception for artists awarded funds by The Rasmuson Foundation. Among the artists were three with ties to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
All three artist projects are very contemporary, including the fur clothing produced by Sitka-based Peter Williams. Williams, the nephew of well-known Delta resident Mike Williams of Akiak, makes fashion items that have been seen on New York City runways. The process used to make them goes back to the way of life practiced by his ancestors. The work begins when Williams heads out to hunt seals and sea otters. Until now, he’s been using a commercial facility to tan the skins. The Rasmuson Foundation funds will enable him to build a shack and buy equipment to tan his own skins from start to finish, just as his ancestors did. Instead of using ulus and teeth to soften and thin the hides, however, he is buying a fleshing knife.
“Which is like a round, rotating blade that is used to shave the skins,” Williams explains. “It’s almost like taking wood chips off the hide to thin it to make it more pliable, thinner, and easier to work with and tan.”
Williams hand-stitches each fur vest, hat, and even did the sea otter edging for the sneakers he wore to the Foundation’s reception on Friday. He sees this work as part of his connection to the natural world and his culture.
“I work with life, I work with nature. That goes to connection. There’s folks who might have a problem with what I do, but are wearing leather and maybe they don’t give that a thought. I really appreciate the connection and relationship I have with the individual animal. That’s why I like to sew with animals that I’ve hunted myself.”
Amber Webb, who lives in Anchorage, also has roots in both the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and the Nushagak drainage next door. She received funds to complete and display a large qaspeq covered with portraits of nearly 400 missing or murdered Alaska Native women. Though it has some traditional design elements, in Webb’s hands this qaspeq is art meant to start a conversation she hopes will change the world.
“The entire environment in the state has to change with regards to Native women, and when we can look at the statistics and the statistics are the same for Native women as they are for any other women in the state, that’s when we know we’ve made the changes we need to make. I hope that I see that in my lifetime.”
Webb believes that the solution to violence against Alaska Native women has to come from Native women and their communities. She sees the strength there to do it because women have survived and continue to survive the violence. She thinks that we need to know the names of those who are gone; see their faces and understand what their loss has done to families, friends, and communities.
“The fact that we have been able to continue practicing our cultures and survive in the face of this tragedy is really a powerful thing. And hopefully the families of the women who were included in the in the qaspeq will see their portraits and know that they’re not forgotten.”
The third project from the Delta receiving an award this year involves art so entwined with life that there is literally no separation, as became clear during the reception. Noah Lincoln, from Toksook Bay, works in social media. He uses a cellphone to make videos featuring family and friends and sometimes has over 150,000 people a month viewing them.
“No scripts,” he declares. “I made it out of the blue. My videos are supposed to be funny. I want to touch everybody emotionally; I want everything to not be so serious. You know how the media’s like, 'everything is so serious.' I just want people to look at the funny side and stop being so uptight about everything.”
Noah Lincoln will use his Rasmuson grant to pay for editing equipment to produce short videos delving into some of the problems of teen life in the village, including tough stuff like drugs and alcohol. One of the first projects Lincoln proposed would approach suicide with an eye toward laughing through the tears. Months after he had the idea, Lincoln arrived at the reception on the edge of tears because a close relative had just killed himself and Lincoln was searching hard for each shred of light. Tears flowed as he spoke; feelings were raw. Not enough time had passed to make art, but that did not stop him from trying. Standing by his wife he said that laughter was the best medicine.
“I wish people could see funny in everything,” Lincoln said through his tears with his wife and a son standing by him. “There’s always funny in everything. You know what, she tells me it’s not funny, but I always find a reason to be funny."
Laughing through the tears as waves of grief overwhelmed him, Lincoln, like many before him, started drinking again.
“I just ended four years of sobriety,” were the first words out of his mouth when I met him. He was honest and vulnerable. Strangers offered him comfort. I, a reporter, may end up on his Facebook page because when our discussion of the healing power of laughter concluded, he said that I reminded him of his grandmother and I tried to provoke a laugh by exaggerating my limping and aging body, adding another 60 years to reveal the grouchy and slightly infantile old lady within. It lit him up. Calling it gold, he whipped out his cellphone and put it right to work.