JUNEAU — Less than a year after ending 38 ½ years in the prison system, Don Morgan is meditating, doing yoga and opening a co-op for Alaska Native arts in Juneau.
Morgan sees the store, Native Craft Coop, as many things. It’s an opportunity for those who create Alaska Native arts to sell their creations at a price they set themselves, with 30 percent going toward the store. It’s an opportunity for artists to interact with customers in person, accepting commissions and using the store as a studio. It’s fundraising for future businesses that will introduce parolees and those who are simply having a hard time to yoga, meditation and the practice of taking one day at a time. It’s also a second chance for Morgan and some other artists.
Carver John Evans, who grew up in Ketchikan, is one of them.
“People can change,” he said on a recent weekday, as he carved small, wooden crosses for an upcoming Christian retreat. “I’m proof of that.”
For 13 years, Evans was an alcoholic, frequently homeless. He spent his days on the sidewalks of downtown Juneau asking for money, he said.
On Sept. 1, he’ll have been sober for five full years - about as long as he’s been a full-time carver. His work is featured prominently in the store, where he plans to be on a regular basis.
Other artists whose work will be sold at the shop include wood and ivory carvers, weavers, jewelry makers, and portrait and bead artists, and others. Artists include Samuel Sheakley, Ray Peck, Barry Smith, JoAnn George, Misak, Herb Sheakley Jr., Lily Hudson, Shgen George, Evans, Morgan, and Ricky Tagaban, among others.
“It’s going to be a lot of different people,” Morgan said. “Whoever wants to put anything in here that’s a Native craft, they set their own price. ... It’s open to anybody that wants to put stuff in.”
How much time an artist spends at the store is up to them, he said.
“It’s a work space, a place they can interact and make (commission) contracts,” he said. “They’re like their own individual business, each of them.”
Morgan grew up in Copper Center, a village of around 300 people about 100 miles from Valdez. He went to Sheldon Jackson High School in Sitka. He didn’t realize he wasn’t an Alaska Native until adolescence, when a relative told him.
“I really had no concept of it back then,” he said.
It was when he was in his early 20s that he committed the crime that would get him sent to jail for almost four decades. During those years, he was transferred to jails all over the country.
Shortly before being released, Morgan was studying “the neuroscience of how a person can change,” he said. He noticed that many of the authors whose books he was reading were Buddhists.
He started studying Buddhism, practicing it, and noticing an immediate difference, he said. Now, he meditates and does yoga every day. He attributes his relatively painless transition to life outside bars to those practices and the idea of taking each day for what it is.
Morgan said the idea for the co-op has been germinating for quite a while.
“There’s just a need for it,” Morgan said. “Something that favors the artist rather than the business.”
Getting the financing for the store was the hardest part, he said. He’s put $8,000 of his own money into it. He’s also working on grants.
Bill Bennett and Shawn Blumenshine of Sealaska have been extremely helpful, Morgan said, as has Bruce Denton, the owner of the Senate Building.
“He has really gone out of his way to make this happen,” Morgan said.
Other shops in the building have also been supportive, he says.
Should the business be successful enough, Morgan hopes to expand into the neighboring space as well.
“I think as word spreads that people can put stuff in here, can be in here and work and actually make a living at it, it will grow,” he said. “I’ve just always been involved in the Native community. In a way, this is giving something back to them, too.”
The co-op is located in the Senate Building in downtown Juneau. Its summer hours will be from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week. It will be open year-round, Morgan said, with reduced hours in the non-tourist season.