In introductory text for “Agayuliyararput: The Living Tradition of Yup’ik Masks,” a major Alaskan exhibit that toured the country in the late 1990s, the traditional purpose of Yup’ik masks is loosely described as a way to make “the unseen world visible.”
Working in the same art form, Anchorage carver Drew Michael has brought this idea into his own time, in his own way, with a body of work called “Life Expressions,” currently on view at the Alaska State Museum. Like masks of the past, Michael’s pieces are personal expressions that tell a story, one that is designed to be shared; a theme of the exhibit is “It’s time to share what’s happening inside.”
“When you share you are actually forming perspective, like with language, you are formulating a world view, how you see things, and I think you find healing and clarity in being able to talk honestly about things that are going on," Michael said. "I just use mask making as a tool for that. “
Michael’s masks move way beyond the parameters established by tradition, however. The 28-year-old carver, who is Yup’ik and Inupiaq, is part of a generation of young artists who are honoring the past while moving deliberately into the present -- with the understanding that their voices are strongest when speaking from their own time and their own experiences.
“I represent a time and a place and a culture and people. Not just my ethnic people but people of today, in time,” he said. “I want to be able to preserve traditional practices but do them in modern ways that people can really connect with. Because sometimes I think people don’t know how to connect with things that are so old. It doesn’t represent the time anymore, it represents the time it was created.”
Michael’s masks combine traditional elements, such as wood, fish skin and feathers, with modern materials such as Plexiglas, nails and silk. He plays with asymmetry, distortion and moving parts, delving into intensely personal territory in his themes. His voice, expressed in this show in 34 unique iterations, is strong and unmistakably his own.
The effect of walking into the museum’s second floor gallery, where Michael’s masks are displayed, is a bit like entering a room crowded with super interesting people -- you want to get a chance to talk to all of them and get a sense of who they are; luckily, paragraph-long descriptions of each piece are provided for the viewer to contemplate. However, Michael said he isn’t that concerned about the particulars of how each of his stories comes across, as long as the emotion is conveyed.
“I think people will connect with something how they want to connect with it,” he said. “I’m not going to tell somebody they have to connect with it the way I created it to be. The story is still out there, it’s just not written down or captured for somebody to hear.”
In the gallery, Michael’s pieces have been arranged in loose chronological order in a clockwise direction around the room, with his earliest works beginning at the far left. His most recent pieces are hanging in a circle in the center of the room at eye level, to highlight the idea that they are intended to be worn; each of these masks includes a mouth piece.
“I really want to see these stay alive and be alive, and not things just on the wall. That’s why I wanted to hang some of them, to show the perspective of movement.”
Jackie Manning, the Alaska State Museum’s Curator of Exhibitions, said in her opinion, the pieces in the middle are some of Michael’s most powerful works. She is particularly drawn to “Falling Out,” a mask with a lopsided zipper mouth, one baleen eyebrow, and an accordion fan of a silk on top.
“I love that one. It’s definitely one of my favorites. And it seems to be, as far as people who come in, one that really strikes them.”
Also in the center ring are Michael’s self portrait “I Can’t Believe I Ended Up Like This,” and a portrait of his boyfriend, Ricky Tagaban, “Tina’s Little Cheeks.” Tagaban’s portrait mask is another of Manning’s favorites.
Michael has previously shown his work at the Alaska Native Arts Foundation and galleries in Anchorage and Portland, and had his work danced at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. “Life Expressions” is his first formal solo show, and includes almost everything he’s done in the past few years. Manning said it provides a great timeline for viewing the artist’s development.
“And I’m excited to see where he’s going next,” Manning said.
Michael began carving at age 14. Born in Bethel, he spent his first two years in various foster homes until he and his twin brother were adopted and moved to Eagle River. The family left Alaska for a brief period, but his parents, who are white, returned to the state in order to offer the boys a chance to connect with their Yup’ik heritage.
“We came back because my parents wanted me to have the opportunity to be at least close to my culture. So we moved back to Eagle River – it isn’t Bethel, but I did have the opportunity to do things at the heritage center, and that’s a great resource for kids to learn about their culture.”
His first carving class in 1997 was with master carvers Bob Shaw and Joe Senungtuk. Later he was able to work with artist Kathleen Carlo and others. As he learned, he fell in love with the form, but struggled with his personal interpretation of it, as well as his place within Alaska Native culture. The fruits of this mental wrestling match can be seen in pieces such as “Insanity for Thought” and “Untamed Desire,” both from 2010, which mark a strong shift from his previous work.
“I wasn’t connected to my place, or my people, really, so it was hard for me to tell a story from that,” he said. “So I think when I got comfortable with my own story, and I was able to start to tell my own story, and not worry about trying to fit into some other story, that’s when I was able to do these pieces. I wasn’t copying a tradition or even trying to emulate somebody else’s story or expression of place, I was expressing my own place, my own time. Accepting, that’s the whole thing. I went through a year of figuring out acceptance in my life. Accept, accept, accept. You can’t fight it all.”
As he learned to make his work more personal, he gravitated toward using materials that reflected his own experiences as a city-dweller in the 21st century.
“‘Insanity’ was the first piece where I thought ‘I’m going to do a design that incorporates materials I want to use, from around my area ... If native people carving masks from a long time ago came to this time, they would use what’s around them. So I’m using what’s around me.”
Most of his pieces contain some kind of metal, an organic material, and a man-made material. In "Insanity" he placed a twisted metal tree emerging from the top of the mask.
“Untamed Desire,” a mask with dramatically elongated features on one side, was the product of another leap forward.
“That was one of the first pieces where I was breaking out of this traditional form. I felt like, ‘This is something I can do. I love doing this. I love being creative in this way, in this form, with this material.’ And so it kind of represents this mind change.”
As he played with form and material, he also broadened his view of what the masks could represent to include emerging ideas and emotions.
“I was trying to figure out how to tell a story with a mask, a face, but then I started to see the masks as representations of situations which would tell an idea. So, this section is where I was finding my own voice.”
As he found his footing, Michael was also working through very personal struggles, such as his confusion about his sexuality; those issues were soon given expression through his art. “Internal Blossom” is one of the masks that represents this theme – which isn’t hard to guess given its dramatic representation of the most recognizable feature of the male anatomy.
“I was trying to figure out my own sexual nature,” he said. “This is just an expression. And I’ve actually gotten some weird comments about it.... People say, ‘You cant just put sex into your art,’ but I’m trying to deal with it!” he laughed. “If you have a problem with it, that’s your problem, I’m sorry. Maybe you have something to deal with.”
The third phase of Michael’s work, represented by pieces toward the end of the show, includes a focus on incorporating a wearable aspect to his masks so that they can be used in dances. This adaptation was inspired in part by Pamyua’s Phillip Blanchett. Pamyua, a well-known Inuit music group, commissioned one of the masks in the state museum exhibit, “Deep Down,” which is featured on the cover of their latest CD, “Side A/Side B.” They also own the giant carved hands that hang with this mask, and have worn both in performance.
“Phillip Blanchett has been really instrumental in encouraging me to make things that they can use. And I love it.”
Last year, Pamyua set up a gallery show of Michael’s work at their CD release opening at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts Discovery Theatre in Anchorage. During the opening, Michael said he was immensely gratified by the reaction to his art by Blanchett’s mother, Marie Meade. Raised in Nunapitchuk, Meade was one of the key participants in the national “Agayuliyararput” exhibit of traditional Yup’ik masks, working alongside curator Ann Fineup-Riordan. Michael watched her reaction to his work closely.
“She walked through a little gallery I had set up and I had some of the pieces hanging like this. She was moved by them, and that justified everything. She didn’t have to tell me, ‘You’re a mask carver, I accept you,’ I could see it on her face, the emotion. And that’s the whole reason why I create these. I want people to experience emotion when they see this stuff, and that’s why some of it is so dramatic. It was so justifying and humbling to have somebody accept me through connecting to my work.”
Michael said he hopes to continue to build collaborations such as the one with Pamyua across media and across cultures as he moves forward.
Last year Michael and seven other artists formed an art collective called “Diaspora.” The group organizes visual and performance art openings and other events in nontraditional spaces around Anchorage. Eventually they hope to be able to offer micro grants for other artists, Michael said.
“We want to share the indigenous perspective, the culture, the different things that go on in culture, we want to be able to share that, because if you don’t share things you can’t keep them alive. “
That impulse to share his perspective with others is also what continues to drive his work.
“We all have a story, we all have things we’ve gone through, and we all have things that have hurt us, that have given us joy,” he said. “A lot of times people think they are alone in their experience. But really, if you hear a lot of people’s stories, we’ve all been through a lot of similar things, so being alone is a false idea, it’s a lie we put in our own heads. Sharing my story and being honest about it – I think its encouraging.”
“If people can talk openly and honestly, I think that’s when people feel the most connected -- and the most changed.”
• This exhibit is on view through March 16. For more on Michael, visit www.drewmichael.net/