Chivly Chup started out carving figures of Buddha 20 years ago in Cambodia. Now he's one of Juneau's most productive carvers of Alaska Native-style art.
Scores of his soapstone and bone carvings can be found in half a dozen shops in Juneau Eskimos dancing and hunting, bears with fat salmon and happy women with baskets of berries. His work outnumbers that of any other Juneau carver in downtown stores.
The 32-year old artist has been carving in Juneau since 1996. His studio in Lemon Creek is crowded with power tools and raw materials. Almost 200 pounds of fossil walrus jawbones lean against a bench stacked with 100 rough-cut blank ulu handles awaiting blades and final details.
Although he may fill an order for a dozen 8-inch-high soapstone bears, he says they're not all the same.
"My art is always different," he said, his English heavy with the accent of Khmer, his native language. "Every piece, it depends on the soapstone. They show you a lot of ideas in that stone."
He grabs a chunk off a pile and points to an angle in the rock.
"I can see a lot. What do you need? Say you need a dancer. See? There's a head, and an arm here. And the curve of the back."
Chup lives a few minutes from his shop. He and his wife Sorn have two daughters two and a half, he laughs, because Sorn is pregnant. A dozen of his own carvings decorate his living room traditional Cambodian motifs as well as mastodons and whales. Surrounded by his family, Chup opens a photo album with 20 years of his history inside.
There's a photo of young Chup in Cambodia, a shirtless boy in the sun, standing beside orange-robed Buddhist monks. Chup grew up in the capital, Phnom Penh and began carving when he was 12. His first works were modeled after the sculptures he saw in temples.
"I just played, copied stuff. I used to carve Buddha, or other sculptures. Apsara (A traditional Cambodian classical dancer)," he said. "We carved wood sometimes I carved candles. I would design my own tools and sharpen them with files."
He could carve two or three pieces a day by his early teens. He said he carved so much he dreamed about it teachers would come to him in his sleep and show him new techniques. He applied them in his waking hours, and began working on temple projects with other young carvers.
"I had a talent," he said.
Chup was living in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. A quarter of the Cambodian people died under Pol Pot's regime, including Chup's parents and four of his siblings.
Chup's remaining family escaped to Thailand, and lived for several years in a refugee camp before he immigrated to Seattle in 1984 when he was 17.
In 1990 Chup met Kurt Tripp, president of Ivory Jack's Trading Company in Bothell, Wash. The artist began carving for Ivory Jack's in 1993.
Two years later, he and his young family went to Emmonak, at the mouth of the Yukon River on the Bering Sea. A photo in his album shows him bundled up and smiling, astride a snowmobile.
"I was teaching Natives how to carve, use the tools," he said. "Ivory Jack's sent me there. I was working so he could train carvers there, in St. Mary's and Nome."
Tripp said villagers there had lost touch with their carving tradition. He went up with Chup, hoping they could reintroduce the art and set up a studio there, but there wasn't sufficient interest. After six months Chup left Emmonak for Juneau and has been here ever since.
Chup's studio, his tools and materials and the pieces he carves, are all owned by Tripp. Tripp deals with the retail outlets, allowing Chup to focus on carving. Tripp stops by regularly to drop off fresh materials and pick up the completed work.
"I just stay at the shop and produce," he said. "I'm always busy here."
Tripp said Chup constantly comes up with new ideas for carvings.
"He's extraordinarily creative. He has ideas in his head, and he can transform them from thought into reality like nobody I've ever known," he said. "Personally, I like his spirit. He's a real nice guy, he's a sincere individual and he works his butt off."
B fine layer of bone dust covers everything in Chup's studio the band saw, grinders and buffers, piles of whalebones and hundreds of pounds of soapstone. He dusts off a brochure showing his carvings, about 60 different figures his wholesaler markets to retailers. All reflect the style of Northwest Alaska Eskimos.
"You say, 'I need a walking bear, a standing bear. I need 10 dancers, can you make them all different? I say sure."
Chup signs his work Chupak. He said he added the AK to his name to denote Alaska, because he carves in Alaska.
Non-Native artists creating Alaska Native-style art has been controversial among some in the Native community. Some local Native carvers, who did not want to be named, have complained that Chup is undercutting them in the marketplace, and that he's misrepresented in some Juneau shops as an Alaska Native.
Chup said he hasn't heard anything about that.
"I haven't talked with other carvers in Juneau," he said. "I haven't had any problems. I'm not copying from anyone else."
He does think there are similarities between Eskimo culture and Cambodian culture that give him an affinity for the style.
"Every night they have dancing, with drums, in my country. It's the same thing. It looks similar, close to my people," he said. "They have masks, too, but with different designs."