East Coast shoppers get a look at Alaska Native art

Posted: Monday, September 29, 2003

MCLEAN, Va. - At the elegant Neiman Marcus department store here, the Steuben and Waterford crystal were relegated to the sidelines last week while the works of Inupiaq, Yup'ik, Aleut and Tlinglit artists commanded the central display cases in home decor, lower level.

A flight of well-heeled ladies eagerly tried on polished ivory bracelets at the store's opening reception Tuesday. Prices ranged from a few hundred dollars to one that was nearly $1,000.

"This is the only place you can find this blue ivory," explained Barbara Overstreet, showing off a bracelet sliced from a tusk tinged with minerals from the St. Lawrence Island area.

The place she was referring to was that region of the Bering Sea. But Overstreet might have said the same about Neiman Marcus, given the rarity of finding Alaska Native art in an upscale retailer so far from Alaska.

Overstreet is a board member of the Alaska Native Arts Foundation, a new nonprofit group that hopes to make such East Coast buying opportunities more common.

The group's founder is Alice Rogoff Rubenstein, a wealthy and well-connected former chief financial officer for U.S. News and World Report.

Rubenstein, who lives in nearby Bethesda, Md., became enchanted with Native art when she and Overstreet went to Alaska last year to watch the Iditarod. There's not much to do when you're waiting for the dogs to come in, as Rubenstein puts it, so she started checking out the art for sale - at the village stores, at a craft show and in the hands of locals who would approach at the race checkpoints.

"They'd just come up to us on the sea ice. It was incredible," she said.

Rubenstein formed the foundation late last year. Board members include Willie Hensley, the former Alaska state senator who runs Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.'s office in Washington, D.C.; Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives; and Terri Ellis Smith, a pilot who flew Rubenstein around Alaska on her first trip to the state, in 2001.

The foundation's goal is to raise the profile of Native art, serve as a conduit for sales, and help artists make a living in their villages so they can perpetuate their culture. The group received a $250,000 federal grant in April, thanks to U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican.

"This is living art from living, indigenous cultures, ... and it's frankly unknown to most of us on the East Coast," Rubenstein told the Neiman patrons.

There in the home decor department, the sales staff did its share of educating, explaining the quality of materials such as baleen and mastodon ivory to customers more accustomed to cashmere and shantung.

Brian Abraham, a scrimshaw artist from the Bristol Bay community of Togiak, brought raw materials and photos of walruses to help describe his work to the people of the Beltway. He worked at a table set up for him in the store.

Dee Skillern, a woman with a patrician coif and a Coach handbag, leaned in to ask him a question.

"Now, tell me," she said, "on the walrus, how do you cut the tusk? Is it from a dead walrus, or is there a way to extract the ..."

"Oh, with an ax," Abraham said brightly, going into some detail about the hacking technique.

Then, peering across the cultural divide, he caught on to Skillern's unease.

His people eat the walrus, he told her. They participate in legal hunts. They also go out in spring to salvage tusks from carcasses, he said.

Skillern, a watercolorist and a civic volunteer from the nearby suburb of Vienna, said her connection to the store brought her to the reception.

"I come to Neiman's on occasion to buy shoes - Ferragamo is on sale," she said.

The ivory necklaces intrigued her, but she had her reservations about buying ivory.

"You know, I want to be - well, I'm an environmentalist, to be honest with you," she said.

Selling Alaska ivory products on the East Coast is a challenge, board member Overstreet acknowledged.

"First they immediately think of elephant ivory," she said. "We've had to just explain about subsistence and culture. We explain that it's (about) people, it's food, it's a way of life and the art is really a byproduct of that."

Usually the explanations work. But not always.

"I have a very dear friend who just can't get beyond it," Overstreet said.

Even Skillern, though, understood Abraham's point well enough to explain it to two other visitors with similar concerns.

"But this is a cultural kind of thing," she told them, "because it's their heritage. It's kind of grandfathered."

Debbie League, a Neiman regular, didn't hesitate. She bought a large ivory barrette, another made of woven baleen, and three ivory bird figurines.

When it comes to decor, League said, she is prone to hand-blown glass, but she liked the idea of adding natural materials and Native art to the mix at her Arlington home.

To Rubenstein, the founder of the arts foundation, that's what the Neiman event was all about: introducing the art to a broader audience, particularly one that can afford to pay for it.

At the reception, she talked about cultural preservation, but she honed in on the practical.

"Most of all, please buy," she urged the customer guests. "Because if you all buy, maybe Neiman Marcus and other stores will keep selling them."

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