“An airport was once built in the wrong spot...”
So began one of the humorous limericks composed by master of ceremonies Tim Lamkin at Thursday evening’s Governor’s Awards for the Arts & Humanities ceremony, in reference to the fog that kept several prominent guests from being able to land in Juneau.
Those stranded in Sitka, Anchorage and Seattle included Lifetime Achievement Award winner Ronald Senungetuk, Governor’s Award winners Eva Saulitis and Aaron Leggett, and the band Pamyua, scheduled to perform at the event.
In spite of these major absences, Thursday’s event at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center was packed full of performances and commentary from some of the state’s most highly-regarded artists and dignitaries, including Gov. Sean Parnell, current and former Alaska State Writers Laureate Nora and Richard Dauenhauer, elder and statesman William Iggiagruk Hensley and Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Eowyn Ivey, to name but a few.
Hensley, Ivey and fellow honorees Martha Beaver Galila, Cam Bohman, Darl Schaaff and Patricia Ann Relay accepted their awards at the JACC in person, while Senungetuk, Saulitis and Leggett sent remarks through video and email.
As they accepted their awards, the honorees shared with the JACC audience their thoughts on how art has shaped their lives, offering insights into their motivations and inspirations in deciding to make art an organizing force.
One common thread that emerged from these colorful and highly personal accounts was the importance of the encouragement of elders; nearly all of the stories referenced a teacher, parent, relative or mentor who helped ignite a creative spark in the minds of these artists when they were young, or simply gave them the confidence they needed to succeed.
Bohman, accepting the award for arts advocacy for her role in fostering young musicians, described growing up in a house full of music and learning to dance on her father’s feet to old 78 records.
“I’m so grateful for his passion of music that he shared with me, so that I could share it with others,” she said, with a catch in her voice.
Honoree Galila, an energetic Yup’ik elder from Goodnews Bay who quickly had the audience in the palm of her hand, said when she began teaching her granddaughter to sew, she recalled what she’d been told as a child by her mother’s sister: keep trying.
“I told her the same thing, ‘You have to keep on doing it, and you will learn,’” she said.
Ivey, who grew up in Palmer, said she learned an early love of books from her mother, a poet, and her father, and avid reader. Ivey is the author of “The Snow Child,” her first book.
Alaska Native elder Hensley, author of the highly acclaimed autobiography “Fifty Miles from Tomorrow,” also grew up with a love of books as a kid in Kotzebue, devouring whatever he could get his hands on by flashlight in his sleeping bag. He also benefitted at every step from the “love and compassion” of his family, he said, and the experiences they shared together.
“Young children absorb more than we know,” Hensely said.
As the awardees shared stories of those who’d influenced them, others highlighted the impact those artists have had on others. Alaskan artist and art historian Kesler Woodward, who accepted Lifetime Achievement winner Senungetuk’s award on his behalf, said Senungetuk has been a mentor and inspiration not only to Alaskan artists but to artists across the country and even the world.
“It’s almost impossible to overstate his importance,” Woodward said.
The ceremony also included several examples of young artists at work: performers included the young Tlingit dance group Lda Kat Naax Sati Yatx’l, who arrived in full regalia to dance “Tsu héidei shuaxtootaan, yá yaa koosge daakeit, haa jeex’ anak has kawdik’eet’” (“Again we will again open this container of wisdom that has been left in our care”) and the Juneau Alaska Music Matters violinists, led by Lorrie Heagy from Glacier Valley Elementary School.
Jemima, one of the JAMM violinists, summed up the importance of the arts to her life very succinctly for the appreciative crowd: “Music makes me feel alive,” she said.
• Organized by the Alaska Humanities Forum, the Alaska State Council on the Arts and the Arts and Culture Foundation, in cooperation with the Governor’s Office, the Governor’s Awards are designed to honor significant achievements by Alaskan artists, writers, historians, scholars and others. For more information on the awardees and the awards reception, visit www.akhf.org or education.alaska.gov/aksca.