Culture clash

Artist puts spin on traditional thought

Art used to be just another fun thing for Joel Isaak to do when he had free time. Now, it is a part of who he is. He’s used it as a way to process his experiences.


“It’s a way that I’ve coped as a kid with things that were happening to me, positive or negative,” Isaak said. “There is a lot of positive things that I represent in my story, too.”

Isaak is 23, grew up in Soldotna, belongs to the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and is a senior at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. 

He discourages labels; there is no one thing that defines him. 

Maybe one word — artist.

He uses his Native American heritage to inspire him while he creates his art, while using his own interpretations on how things should be. 

“I kind of branched out into finding my artistic voice,” he said. “And me as a Native American person, how that fits into it — because I wouldn’t just put myself in the Native American box, I consider myself an artist.”

Isaak uses a variety of mediums to illustrate his experiences. From metals to skins and hides to bicycle parts and anything he can find laying around, he utilizes each piece to fit in his vision, like an orchestra.

When he got to college, he realized how much of an impact art had on him. 

“I first started doing ceramics as a chemistry major — I just did it for stress relief and the functional pottery aspect of it,” Isaak said. “Then I started to push boundaries and approach it from more of an artistic standpoint rather than relieving stress.”

It was then that Isaak completed the transition to focusing all of his time and energy on art. He credits his education for giving him what he needs to produce meaningful pieces.

“Going to a university and taking the (art) classes gave me the confidence and the skills to express what I wanted to clearly,” he said. “That’s where I really find the value of education — is that it gives you that standpoint. 

“I could have kept doing chemistry and art on the side, but without that focus and the learning — like the artistic language and how to express things, that it really is valuable to have that education.” 

Changing his major from chemistry to sculpture, gave him the opportunity to pursue his newfound identity.

Isaak is frugal — a result of his background. He re-purposes things he finds on the beach, like salmon skin. There’s a junkyard in the back of the house he’s renting in Fairbanks. It’s his use of materials and the way he brings them together that sets him apart from other artists. Most of his materials come at no charge besides the labor it takes to acquire them.

“You can’t just go to the store and buy dry salmon skin or dry fish fins — so it’s worth it,” Isaak said. “And most people aren’t willing to deal with the smell and the time do it, so to me, it’s very valuable.”

As he tries to use traditional processes with a school schedule, Isaak encounters roadblocks.

“Marrying traditional processes with a school timeline does not marry well,” he said with a laugh. “I spent a lot of time getting those materials in the summer and doing all of this stuff before-hand — because it is a lifestyle that I get to do this.”

Isaak has created salmon skin boots, salmon skin masks, masks made out of crushed up wine and beer bottles. But out of all his pieces, there is one that he cherishes most — a bronze mask.

Isaak said there are very few surviving Athabascan masks, and he hasn’t seen any actual images of them. 

But not knowing the expected outcome gave Isaak the freedom to put his personal spin on it. 

His result — a bronze mask with 400 holes punched in it, bound together with salmon skin used as a string, also installing the skin where the ears would be located. 

Two cultures encased in one mask. 

“I went with melding those two environments together, my western background with my more traditional background — and what happens when they clash together,” he said. “There is a violent clash that happens, there’s like a war of cultures essentially.”

The war comes with conflict, he said.

“But there’s also a positive outcome, and it’s beautiful, what happens as a result,” Isaak said.

The 400 holes with the salmon string intertwined between them makes it look like the string is holding the mask together.

“I got some feedback like, ‘Well that looks really violent, you’re stitching peoples’ faces back together,’” he said. “‘That’s kind of a grotesque thing, but it’s also intriguing and is nice to look at.’”


“That’s what I was really trying for,” he said, “is that whole — how do you make something you don’t really want to look at that’s kind of gross, but also has beauty in it. So that was my goal with these (masks).”

During the shows, the masks are lit from behind to demonstrate realism.

“So they glow, and it has a life in it,” he said. “There’s a person or a being behind it.”

Isaak’s work is directly influenced by his experiences — a very personal portfolio. Whether it’s a childhood experience, going through college, or just the conversations he’s had while traveling and how those people’s stories have impacted him. His reactions take a 3-D form, that’s how Isaak connects with the viewer.

“I put enough of myself into it where it has my personal style, but I try to leave it open-ended enough to where another individual can relate to it,” Isaak said. “I’m not concretely saying, ‘This is what you should be feeling.’ I’m trying to give an experience.”

Installation art gives Isaak a platform to create a unique experience for viewers — instead of just looking at a painting, or something that is 2-D, he can create an entire atmosphere. 

“You put something on a table, and it’s dependent on the lighting and how high it is and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “So it’s completely part of the atmosphere the viewer is in. I like that, I like to play with that and push boundaries for making people feel uncomfortable, but still want to be the space.”

He describes himself as a Native Alaskan artist. His heritage is that of the Dena’ina people.

Isaak had his first solo art show in December, one of the requirements of his degree. 

The show was titled “Transformations” and exhibited the salmon skin masks and the bronze masks.

“I deal with a lot of victim imagery, and there’s some experiences I’ve had in my life where I feel victimized — with being Native or being discriminated against, or people make comments or derogatory words towards me,” he said. “But I’m so much, and everybody is so much more than just the negative experiences they had.”  

His original concept for the show was something really grotesque and graphic, he said. But then he changed his mind.

“That’s not what I’m trying to communicate,” Isaak said. “I’m trying to show that — but also there’s so much more of a positive nature out of it.

“I chose the title ‘Transformations’ because I transformed in my artistic voice throughout that show.”

Isaak will be graduating from UAF in May, and then he’ll be going to Bristol Bay to work with children during youth programs, something he’s accustomed to. Isaak volunteers with the Kenaitze Tribe in the summers during their art camps. His plan is to return to the Kenai Peninsula after Bristol Bay and help out in any capacity he can with the Tribe. After traveling to other parts of the world, he would rather contribute to his own culture.

“I have a really diverse culture here that I can be plugged in to and learn more about and really make my own,” Isaak said. “When you’re in something, a lot of times you have to get out before you can see what you actually have.

“I have such a valuable thing here.”

Some of Isaak’s work is on display at the Kenai Fine Arts center located in Old Town Kenai until the end of January. 


Logan Tuttle can be reached at


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