Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Diverging a bit from our focus on writers, we celebrate a huge honor bestowed last night on Alaskan mask-maker Perry Eaton, who draws from his Alutiiq heritage to carve tradition-based Sugpiaq Alutiiq masks. In a live-streamed ceremony last night, United States Artists (USA) honored Eaton as one of 50 USA Fellows in eight creative disciplines — spanning the visual, performing, and literary arts — with each receiving an unrestricted grant of $50,000.
Fewer than 150 original Alutiiq masks still exist. Once deemed heretical by Russian and American colonizers, these masks are now in collections all over the world. During the 1990s, Eaton and a few others began traveling to study the masks and revive this forgotten tradition. Besides making his own carvings, Eaton, who studied art at Gray Harbor Community College, is a dedicated teacher at youth camps and cultural organizations. He was the founding President of the Alaska Native Heritage Center and is still a member of the board.
To become a USA Fellow, one must be nominated. Each year nominations are made by a different anonymous group of arts leaders, critics, scholars, and artists chosen by USA. Nominators do not know one another; their identities remain confidential.
Nominators are asked to submit names of artists they believe show an extraordinary commitment to their craft. Artists at any stage of career development may be nominated. Artists must demonstrate expert artistic skills, artistic education or training (formal or informal), a history of deriving income from those skills, and a history of active engagement in creating artwork and presenting it to the public. Discipline-specific peer panels composed of leading artists and art experts meet to select the program finalists. The USA Board of Directors approves the final recommendations. Just back from Europe and in California for the USA Fellows award ceremony, Eaton graciously agreed to a timely guest post for 49 Writers.
Alutiiq masks have been the primary expression for my artist endeavors since 2000. In my travels in Russia in the late eighties I visited museums that housed masks from Kodiak. But it was only after Helen Simeonoff showed me pictures she had taken in the Chateau-Musee in Boulogne sur Mer, France, that I became artistically fixated on the art form. It wasn't as if I was going to renew the art form or start a movement or something like that - I just loved the masks. Artists like Jacob Simeonoff had already paved the way. He was doing beautiful work several years before I ever made my first mask.
Alutiiq culture has really undergone a resurgence in the last decade. It seems like everyone is contributing to the activity. Dance groups got all of us thinking and Koniag, the Kodiak area native association, the Alutiiq Museum, and all the tribal and village corporations as well as public institutions like the school district in Kodiak, have all contributed to the creation of a current awareness of Alutiiq culture.
I believe the Alutiiq experience is indicative of the renewal of Alaska Native culture in general. Actually it's not really a renewal at all, but a re-valuation of something that had not been held of value by the dominant society. Cultural diversity is now being discussed with more of an open mind than ever before in the American experience. Alaska Natives, in part due to the success of our corporations and a greater participation level in the non-native world, are being more accepted. We bring our culture with us to the table, and more people come to understand the beauty that is within our people.
Now before someone grabs the Polly-Anna stick to beat me a few good licks up the side of my head, let's just say we have come a terrifically long way in a very short amount of time. And celebrating our culture is one of the great ways we can take pride in our achievements and insure a future for our children. The entire Alaska Native community has been a lifelong inspiration for me. I can't imagine anything other than what I am doing now being more fulfilling in life.
As I learn more about the USA fellows program I hope to inspire others in Alaska to apply and be recognized. It's so new to me my head is still swimming!