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Native artists get new gallery

Venture into high-stakes art dealing proves that everything Alaska is hot

Posted: Friday, September 19, 2008

NEW YORK - The first showcase gallery outside Alaska for Native artists of the far north has opened in New York amid heightened interest in the 49th state.

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David Minthorn / The Associated Press
David Minthorn / The Associated Press

Gov. Sarah Palin's nomination as the Republican vice presidential candidate thrust Alaska into the media glare like nothing since statehood in 1959. Founders of Alaska House, New York, a gallery in Manhattan's Soho district, say the opening was planned long before Sen. John McCain announced the hockey mom as his running mate.

Even so, anything about Alaska seems to be hot, including this new venture into high-stakes art dealing. Some 300 people attended Monday night's opening.

The more than 200 works represent the largest, most diverse collection of contemporary Alaska Native art and crafts ever shown outside the state, according to gallery founder Alice Rogoff. They include mixed-media paintings of Kodiak bears, feathered ceremonial masks, wall hangings made from walrus innards, decorative sculptures from stone, wood carvings and buckskin apparel, and baskets and textiles woven from indigenous plants.

The highest-priced work at $75,000 is a whale carving in white marble by Larry Ahvakana. Among the largest is "Large Orange Secrets," a 5-foot-high study in mixed-media by Sonya Kelliher-Combs, for $17,000. Dolls with ivory faces and swathed in fur are priced around $1,000. Proceeds from sales will go to the Alaska Native Arts Foundation, which helps support artists in remote villages across the state.

The works reflect the vast geography of Alaska and its varied Native groups, from the Bering Sea islands and the Arctic to the river valleys of the interior and the forests of the southeast coast, and cities such as Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Native artists work with the "byproducts of their daily lives -- whalebone, walrus tusks, animal skins, feathers, grass, wood and roots, to name a few," according to Alaska House brochures.

A film projected on a wall screen in the two-level gallery shows the natural splendor of Alaska's mountains and glaciers, rivers teeming with fish, polar bears on the ice cap, caribous in the tundra and Native life sustained by hunting and fishing. It's part of the Alaska House educational program on global warming.

In remarks at Monday night's opening, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, underlined the impact of Native art on all Alaskans, saying the works represent "who we are" and reflect "examples of our culture."

A half dozen prominent artists accompanied their works to Alaska House. Many of the motifs have spiritual significance and reflect a strong bond with nature.

Perry Eaton, of the Sugpiaq Alutiiq people of Kodiak Island, showed bird masks carved from wood, decorated with feathers and colored with natural pigments. Priced in the $30,000 range, these masks combine traditional shapes with contemporary forms and have a whimsical quality.

"Notice how the bird lips are sealed. In our culture we don't want to chatter too much," he explained.

The masks are highly decorative, museum-quality works. They are also used in traditional rites, such as storytelling and funerals, where they are burned after the mourning period.

Mixed-media artist Alvin Amason of Anchorage has a half-dozen works at Alaska House, including show-stopper oil portraits of the ferocious Kodiak bears from his boyhood home, priced from $14,500 to $38,000.

Amason, former director of the Native Art program at the University of Alaska, said he counseled students against fastening on concepts such as "preservation" and "tradition," which can smother creativity.

Instead, his portrayals of traditional subjects such as bears and walruses are executed with the eye and techniques of a modernist. "I always was interested in artists like Willem de Kooning," Amason said.

Masterworks of earlier Native Alaskan eras are in permanent collections of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the National Gallery of Art and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, as well as in European museums.

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