Carved in time

Ancient Native art finds new form in modern artist's work

Posted: Thursday, March 10, 2005


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  Whale Mask

Whale Mask

When Ron Senungetuk was growing up in Whales on the Bering Strait, his carving talents and knowledge of his Inuit people's artistic traditions were used to get him treats at the local store, much like a kid in a Lower 48 suburb hawks lemonade for spending money.

"We used to do little ivory carvings just so we could sell them to the store for a bag of raisins or some such things," he said.

After completing an art education in Rochester, N.Y., and Norway and a career as an art instructor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the artistic traditions of his Native culture have become much more important to Senungetuk than just a means for an entrepreneurial child to indulge a sweet tooth.

Native Alaska art in his Inuit culture and others had spiritual significance that was related to many aspects of life, particularly hunting, he said.

"Hunters and then the gatherers and then the preservers of what they hunted believed that everything had a spirit, so if you caught a whale you had to take care of its spirit and when you took care of its spirit you made images and you made dances and gestures that would please the animal that you caught so it would come back next year," he said.

Art also was used as a way for people of a particular culture to identify themselves.

"Self-identity is important among all Arctic world people," Senungetuk said. "Each group likes to have its own regalia so it is identified as 'Oh, this person is from this place.'"

Once Senungetuk moved back to the state after his education, he became more interested in Native Alaska art, especially art from ancient times before Natives came in contact with Europeans.

"As far as I'm concerned, when I look at Alaska Native art from my area, when you go back (before contact), that's the best art from there," he said.

Alaska Native art began to change with the influence of Europeans, especially Christians, as they discouraged the spiritual significance of art in Native culture.


Spring Ice 2

Senungetuk said Native Alaska art went through another change for the worse in the 1950s through a'70s.

"While teaching (at UAF) I noticed terrible conditions in Alaska Native art through gift shop operations and that sort of thing," he said.

Natives artists were creating things to meet the demands of gift shops — knickknacks and trinkets for visitors to take home. Though the work often originated from some traditional background, the significance of it was being lost.

"Popular demand made art expression into (something) just to please consumers," he said. "It became that kind of thing but when you check beyond that ... the artwork is for real and that's what I'm trying to do."

Senungetuk began studying ancient Alaska Native artifacts including masks and intricately carved hunting implements in museums, from photos and books and wherever else he could find images of them.

His work now includes ancient Alaska Native themes and images interpreted in his own artistic style, which he says is influenced by the international style he learned in school.

Senungetuk's work can be seen at Kenai Peninsula College through March in "Bering Strait Images," an exhibition of his bass-relief wood panels. For the past 10 to 15 years, Senungetuk, now retired and living in Homer with his wife, Turid, has been concentrating on woodworking, including many large-scale panels and mobiles done as public art projects. He also has an interest in metalsmithing and jewelry making but says he wants to be satisfied with his panel work before he goes back to working with metal.

In the KPC show, examples of Senungetuk's interest in Native imagery are represented in the subject matter and carving techniques. Several panels show ancient masks made by Inuit people. Others have images of animals such as walrus, caribou and whales like Senungetuk's ancestors carved into hunting implements. In the detail of some panels, Senungetuk carved a grid of vertical and horizontal lines, which he said was inspired by the scratches his ancestors carved into ivory.


Triptych Walrus III

Though often inspired by ancient artifacts, Senungetuk says he reinterprets ancient artwork, rather than exactly recreating it. His own style that he developed through his western training comes into play in his work, including a series of panels depicting spring ice breakup in abstract forms.

On Sunday at 3 p.m., KPC will host a reception for Senungetuk, and he will give a slide presentation titled "An Overview of Native Alaskan Art." Much of what he will show are Bering Strait-area artifacts that Senungetuk has used as research for his artwork, he said.

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