Artist, author collaborate on retrospective

Posted: Thursday, February 27, 2003

John Hoover: Art and Life

By Julie Decker

University of Washington Press


The carved, wooden sculptures of John Hoover have a spare simplicity. Yet they are rich with a sinuous grace and ancient imagery that speak of the sea, ancient myths and legends in an artistic voice modern viewers can understand.

"John Hoover: Art and Life" is the first opportunity for admirers to take home his works in book form.

Hoover began life eight decades ago in a struggling family on Prince William Sound. Today he is a respected artist and spokesperson for the Native art revival.

Perhaps his best known works in the north are two public pieces in Anchorage: his 1984 "Volcano Woman," at the William A. Egan Convention Center, and the 1998 "Raven the Creator," at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

Julie Decker, an Anchorage gallery owner and specialist in contemporary Alaska visual arts, has written an eloquent summary of Hoover's art and life. It came out last year to coincide with a retrospective of his work at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.

The book contains 108 color plates of the artists work, tracing his career through the decades. Although a few horizontal works are sadly split across two pages, nearly all the plates are outstanding thanks to the book's spacious 8 -inch-by-11-inch format and vivid colors.

Decker wrote about Hoover not only for his artistic significance, but also for his colorful past and knack for storytelling.

She got to know him when she included him in her 1999 book, "Icebreakers: Alaska's Most Innovative Artists." Both wanted to do more. Decker traveled to Hoover's home in Grapeview, Wash., on the shore of Puget Sound to videotape hours of interviews.

"It is impossible not to want to hear this mans stories. He is both warm and keenly intelligent," she wrote in her preface.

"His life stories are not secrets but are intertwined with his artwork, and they are a gift to those who come to know him. It is my hope that this publication will bring Johns stories and art to life for many more people and that it will preserve them for many more years."

The youngest child of a biracial couple, Hoover was born in 1919 and raised in Cordova. When he was 5, his father died.

"My Aleut mother, in a desperate attempt to make us acceptable, raised us as white," he told Decker.

He worked odd jobs to help the family and during World War II served as a skipper for the U.S. Army Transportation Service. In 1946, he married Barbara McAllister, and they had five children.

Hoover worked predominantly as a commercial fisherman. Between seasons, he pursued arts: painting, dance lessons and playing as a drummer in a band.

In 1950 he determined to become a serious painter and taught himself. Initially he concentrated on oil painting landscapes. In 1952, he and his family moved to Washington, but he continued fishing summers in Alaska for decades.

In the 1960s, he began working in wood and felt a special affinity for it. Researching legends and art forms from the Pacific Northwest, he developed a style inspired by, but not imitative of or limited by, traditional Native arts.

Particular influences he cited include Salish carving of the Northwest Coast, Inuit masks and Russian Orthodox icons. Like many of his generation, he reclaimed his Native heritage second-hand, often by reading anthropologists' accounts.

"I was never lucky enough to experience any real traditional material," he said. "I had to read about it. Luckily, I was able to take traditional material and make it my own vision. I am thankful for that gift."

Among his distinctive techniques are the use of carved cedar, delicate coloring, abstract forms and hinged pieces. To work the wood, he uses a unique mix of modern and recreated prehistoric tools.

Frequently Hoover depicts animals such as salmon, seabirds, waterfowl and marine mammals. He has a particular interest in shamanism, and singles out the loon as his spirit helper.

"The transformation mythology, that's one of my main themes, and people relate to that; they find somehow a religious connotation to it, a spiritual adventure," he said.

"Although I can't myself transform into any other shape, I can through my art."

His first major sculpture show, in 1968 in Bellevue, Wash., proved an inspiration and validation. In 1972, he won his first major art award and was invited to teach at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where he worked alongside leaders of the late-20th-century Native art revival such as Fritz Scholder, Charles Loloma and Allan Houser, whom he called "a magician."

In 1974, he traveled to Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines as an artist-in-residence for U.S. military schools and absorbed Asian influences.

During the decade, his work received widening recognition and began garnering awards. But it was also a time of loss, as his marriage broke up. In 1978, he got married a second time to Mary Rockness, and their daughter was born in 1985.

Hoover exhibited in major venus (including the first White House exhibit focused on Native art), won numerous awards and created public sculptures.

In recent years, age has forced Hoover to slow down. In 1993 he retired from fishing in Alaska. In 1999, he had heart surgery. But he continues to carve and sculpt, describing creating as an obsession.

Decker praises Hoover's accomplishments and puts them in the broader context of the artistic movement reinventing and revitalizing Native art. In the process she brings both the artist and his inspiration to life for the reader.

The book shows that both Hoover and Decker are masters of their crafts. It is a worthy tribute to one of the region's leading talents.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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