Two great painters told of three mighty ships

On the Waterfront

Posted: Friday, April 11, 2003

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

"The time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things, of ships and shoes and sealing wax and cabbages and kings."

My friend, K.B. Lytton, of Hearthside Books, reminded me of this Lewis Caroll saying from the book, "Alice in Wonderland." Let us join the walrus and talk of three ships and men who painted them.

The first two are the Isabella and Alexander. They were commissioned by the British Admiralty to try to find a passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the icy, northern waters of Canada and Alaska. The voyage took place in 1818, and the captain of the expedition was John Ross.

Thus began the concerted effort by the British to find the Northwest Passage. Of course, not until the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, finally succeeded in the early 20th Century, was the quest won.

On the Isabella was a young Eskimo named John Sackheouse, who was employed as a translator. He was from Greenland, and as a boy, had been brought to England by a whaling ship. In England, he received a rudimentary education, including the study of art.

When the Isabella and Alexander met a group of Eskimos at Prince Regents Bay on August 10, 1818, Sackheouse painted the scene as a present for Captain Ross. The Eskimos, who had never before seen large ships or even Englishmen, were astounded by the encounter. And, as a man approached, Sackheouse shouted at the ships, "Who are you? What are you? Where do you come from? Is it from the sun or the moon?"

This painting is, perhaps, the first ever done by an Eskimo in the European manner of ink and watercolor.

The other ship is the Bear. Another Eskimo artist, James Kivetoruk Moses of Nome, included it in one of his paintings. The Bear served from 1895 to 1929 as a United States revenue service and Coast Guard cutter.

The Bear started as a sealing ship in Canadian arctic waters. But after being bought by the United States government, she came to Alaska on an annual cruise, serving as a supply ship, a medical station and a court of law.

The title of Moses' picture is "The Medicine Man and the Cutter Bear." It shows the Bear in the background and two primary figures, the doctor from the ship and the Eskimo medicine man.

The doctor has just thrown several rings onto a rope. The Eskimo, to show off his superior power, has plunged a knife into his stomach, then pulled it out and wetted the spot without a mark of blood showing.

I once met James Moses and his wife, Bessie, while visiting Nome in the late 1960s. What a great artist he was. The Alaska State Museum has over twenty of his works, probably the largest collection there is. Bessie wrote a commentary for many of the pictures. So if you visit the museum and see a story beside the picture, it is most likely by Bessie.

Unlike politicians, who are acclaimed in their own lifetimes but soon forgotten, artists often grow in stature as the years go by. James Kivetoruk Moses is in this class.

So, Mr. Walrus, enough of "ships and shoes, and sealing wax and cabbages and kings," and Eskimo artists.

• Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau. He can be reached at 586-1655.

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