Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Alaskan Native American Art

Rugged Beauty
by Emmy Hirsch, guest blogger

Alaska Native wolverine fur pin

Alaska is famous for its rugged beauty. Its mountains, rivers, coastlines, and animals are all inspiration for the distinctive arts and crafts produced by Alaskan Native Americans. Ten thousand years ago, the Eskimo people were nomadic caribou hunters and seasonal hunters of seals. Traditional art consisted of small utilitarian objects, such as weapons, tools, and diminutive animals. The subjects of Eskimo art reflected their lives as hunters and fishermen as well as their extensive mythology. Contemporary Eskimo art consists mainly of carved figures in smooth soapstone, ivory, and rough-surfaced whalebone and lithographs printed with local stone.

Genuine Alaska Native art or craft items reflect the quality of the craftsmanship, harmony of design, and the background of the artist. Many pieces can be quite expensive, for not only is the process to create such a work time-consuming and difficult, but the materials used are sacred to the people. Walrus ivory, soapstone, bone, alabaster, animal furs and skin, and baleen are just some of the many materials that Alaskan Natives use to make their beautiful pieces of artwork.

Sculptures and carvings vary in size and often portray animals or people. Marine mammal ivory is a popular but expensive material used by carvers. By law, new marine mammal ivory may be carved only by Alaskan Natives and sold only after it has been carved. Old ivory can be carved by non-Natives. Fossilized mammoth ivory is used by both Alaskan Natives and non-Natives, but it is rare and much more expensive. Because of the natural variation in fossilized ivory, no two carvings have the same pattern or color. Soapstone is a soft rock with a soapy feel and ranges in color from gray to green. It is widely available and easy to carve, and while it scratches easily, it is acid, chemical, and heat resistant, making it a popular choice for artists to use. Marine mammal bone, from whales and other marine animals, is used for mask-making. Bone masks are made from the vertebrae or disk of whales and range in color from light tan to dark brown. Bone items are lighter and more porous than ivory, and therefore they tend to be less expensive than ivory pieces.
Fossilized Walrus Ivory Cuff Links
by Warren Colville

Alaskan Native artists also produce baskets, dolls, drums, prints, and etchings. Baleen, a flexible material from the jaw of baleen whales, is used to make baskets, scrimshaw etchings, and dioramas. Scrimshaw etchings often portray stories from the artist's culture and are reminiscent of techniques introduced by Boston whalers in the 1800s. Alaskan dolls, handcrafted by many Alaskan Native women, portray daily activities of the artist's people. Doll clothes and bodies are made from a variety of materials, including caribou skin, mink, badger, sea otter, seal, arctic rabbit, and beaver. Fur from musk ox, wolverine, and wolf is sometimes used to make traditional doll clothing.

Emmy Hirsch is an intern at SchulmanArt and will be an incoming freshman at Franklin and Marshall College in the fall of 2013.

Looking for Alaskan Art? You can enjoy the beauty of Alaska from photography to jewelry and more! Discover all these artists inspired by the beauty of Alaska!