For Fairbanks-based artist Da-ka-xeen Mehner, the creative process is something of a reciprocal relationship. As he forms his pieces and brings them into the world, they also form him and help to orient him in modern society.
"I grew up as a cross-cultural person, and I'm still trying to define who I am and where I am in today's society - as a Native American artist, as an Alaskan artist," Mehner said. "I feel like I'm always kind of constructing myself, I guess, with my artwork."
His latest show, "Self Constructions," opens at the Alaska State Museum tonight with a reception during the First Friday art walk at 4 p.m.
The show contains mixed media pieces, sculpture and photographic images. Most of the photographic works are not single shots but works that have been digitally altered or embellished with objects.
In some cases, Mehner has altered historic photos from the archives of Case and Draper, a team of photographers based in Skagway in the late 1880s, who specialized in formal Tlingit portraits.
This particular creative angle was inspired in part by a chance discovery: While researching historic photos online, Mehner came across a studio shot of a man in full regalia whose name was phonetically nearly the same as his own, Da-ka-xeen. Names are passed down through the clan system, he said, so he knew that this person was probably a relative, either by blood or through his clan.
"I started going through the archives and finding every image I could of this person," he said.
He created an image of himself in the same regalia but holding a camera instead of a staff, and inserted it as a mirror image into the photograph.
"I was really looking at my place in history as this person that is following that line - if not as a blood relative, at least as a clan relative," he said.
This mirroring device is used in other photographs as well, and draws on the form-line tradition in Northwest Coast Native art.
"(I was) thinking about the form-line design and how often it's this mirror image, so I use that in photography also," he said.
Mehner said his art enables him to explore his position at the confluence of two cultures, Tlingit on his mother's side and "American hippie" on his dad's. One of the images in the show, "7/16," which won the top award at the 2006 "Alaska Positive" photo exhibition organized by the museum, is a self-portrait that shows Mehner's unusual beard, half dark and half light due to a birthmark, and, he says, a visual representation of his mixed heritage.
"Blood Quantum," another work on display, was inspired by Mehner's Bureau of Indian Affairs ID card.
"I always thought it was very strange that I have this card telling me how Native I am," he said.
Though the show contains mostly photographic works, Mehner does not limit himself to this medium. His last body of work, "Weapons of Mass Defense," featured, among other things, giant Tlingit knife forms created of steel and concrete. He said that though he has been advised to consolidate his talents, he prefers to remain diversified.
"I have a love of materials and love of exploring, really, and I like to reach out and try new things," he said. "My entire art career, people have been telling me I need to focus in on one thing ... (but) that's boring."
He said that his attraction to a particular art form tends to ebb and flow.
"(I'll concentrate on) photography for awhile then feel like I need to get my hands dirty, and I'll start doing some carving or welding, something of that nature," he said.
Mehner credits the isolated conditions of one of his childhood homes, his father's cabin north of Fairbanks, with forming his creative bent at a young age.
"As I kid I just drew," he said, adding that describing himself as an artist at an early age helped him find an identity that felt comfortable.
"When I left Alaska to go to college, art school seemed like my only option really," he said.
He attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe and the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque before returning to get his masters in Native Arts from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. After having explored thematic-based cultural inspirations while in New Mexico, such as Tlingit myths and stories, he found himself drawn to more tangible inspiration upon his return to his home state.
"When I returned to Alaska ... I was really able to look at my cultural history as a center, a way to base work from," he said. "I really started examining the material objects of the Tlingit and the imagery that's left behind by other photographers."
Mehner, who has family in Juneau, now resides in Fairbanks. He will be present at tonight's opening, and his show will remain in place through Oct. 18.