Students create Alaska Native-style masks

In this photo from Jan. 9, 2014, students in Dave Gerrish's art and technology class at Randy Smith Middle School, including, from left, Sam Delamere, Alyssa Mandich, Samantha Starks and Ruby Leff, pose with their recently completed animal-based Native wood mask carvings displayed in the hall of the school in Fairbanks, Alaska. (AP Photo/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Eric Engman)

FAIRBANKS (AP) — Students at Randy Smith Middle School in Fairbanks are using their art skills to tie together creativity, education and Alaska Native culture.

The students, in Dave Gerrish’s technology and art class, spend the length of the second quarter this school year creating their own personalized masks, carved from wood and adorned with attachments, based on traditional Native designs.

To learn about the masks and the culture surrounding them students watched a video detailing the purpose and the process of the masks’ creation as well as the time and effort put into each one.

“You don’t really see a lot of Native art now,” said eighth-grader Ruby Leff, “so it’s cool that we got to learn about it and do it because I didn’t really know that that’s what they do.”

Each of the students’ masks consists of a large central block of wood that has been carved to resemble an animal found in Alaska. The main block is surrounded on each side by four separate attachments that correlate to the animal each student chose.

Seventh-grade student Sam Delamere chose to replicate his on the wolf, and created a main block resembling its face, complete with large pointy ears.

Surrounding the wolf head are a paw print and a crescent moon, as well as a rabbit painting and a real antler, symbolizing the wolf’s prey.

Gerrish has been collecting unused animal parts such as raven claws, caribou antlers and feathers for a number of years. At first he did it without really knowing for what purpose he would use them, but when the possibility of the mask project came up he realized the time of their use had finally come.

Gerrish has been teaching in Alaska for nearly 27 years. He has taught in Bethel, Kake and Yukon-Koyukuk school district.

“I’ve taught all over the Interior with Native populations, and I’ve always thought that I wanted to do a project like this with students,” Gerrish said, “and the time was just right finally.”

Even with Gerrish’s long-standing dream and optimism for the project, the class’s response and work still surprised him, turning out better than he had imagined. The entire staff, as well, performed admirably throughout the process, he said.

“They had to put up with kind of odor and lots of dust in the hallway and that sort of thing,” Gerrish said.

The real show of success, Gerrish said, could be seen in the way the students took to the project with enthusiasm and the pride each of his students took in their own masks.

“So many projects they forget and leave them in the room,” Gerrish said.

“The kids have taken more pride in (their masks) than any project I’ve ever taught.”

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