Southwest Alaskan finds purpose in carving, culture

Posted: Monday, March 11, 2002

BETHEL (AP) -- Vernon Bavilla was at a crossroads in his life.

He had just been released from prison after serving a three-year sentence for attempted sexual abuse of a minor. His wife was divorcing him. He'd been thrown out of his house. He needed a job and a reason to stay away from the alcohol that had been the source of so much trouble in his life.

With nowhere else to turn, Bavilla looked to his past to give him a future. When he was released in October, he began pursuing carving as a career.

''This work has given me hope,'' he said. ''It allows me to pursue becoming self-sufficient. Carving has been my salvation.''

Bavilla, 35, a father of four, was born in Goodnews Bay, 116 miles south of Bethel, and grew up whittling driftwood and discarded pieces of ivory.

''I used to do it on the outside, but it didn't mean anything to me,'' Bavilla said of carving in his days before going to prison.

Before prison, Bavilla was a subsistence hunter and fisherman in Tuntutuliak, 40 miles southwest of Bethel. He stayed at home and took care of his growing family most of the time when he wasn't gathering food, taking office jobs to supplement the family's income only occasionally.

In prison, carving was all he had. He started taking arts and crafts classes. The work kept him occupied and gave him something to be proud of.

''Even though I was incarcerated, I was able to find that sense of peace through carving,'' Bavilla said.

Bavilla returned to Goodnews Bay after his release. He moved in with his parents in the village of 230 people and converted their former house into a workshop. Bavilla saw art as a way to stand on his own again and a way back into the lives of his children.

''I'd like to be there for my kids,'' Bavilla said. ''They're the big reason I'm trying to get myself together. My kids are driving me.''

Bavilla earns about $800 a month from selling his carvings. He travels to Bethel every couple of months to hawk his handiwork at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Regional Hospital and businesses flush with non-Native workers who often collect Native crafts.

Bavilla is practical about having to ''peddle'' his art office-to-office.

''This is how I have to start out, because I have no way of advertising myself,'' he said.

He hopes to build up a following and eventually sell his work across the state from his home in Goodnews Bay.

Bavilla uses personal experience and traditional knowledge in carving masks.

''Mask-making has been going on for a long time, but there's only three young men in town who are keeping it alive,'' Bavilla said.

Wood and ivory masks are commonly used in Yup'ik dances. Each mask has a specific meaning.

''There's a lot more meaning to mask-making then just display. When a person makes a mask, they are telling a story,'' Bavilla said. ''They make prayers, and it's part of the healing process for the creator.''

Bavilla said hunters often carve the image of the animal they hope to capture before going hunting as homage to the animal's spirit.

''It's their wish to the creator that they want to see become a reality,'' he said. ''It's art that is living.''

Bavilla's masks focus on his own healing process. The circle represents the revolving cycle of life, the interdependence between hunter and prey.

The four sections of the mask form a crossroads that signifies a person's body, mind, heart and soul. Combined, they provide a way for a person to become healthy, Bavilla said.

Bavilla creates his art using ancient mastodon ivory, walrus ivory, baleen, and driftwood, along with bass wood and cedar bought from art supply stores in Anchorage and the Lower 48. He barters with neighbors and relatives for some raw materials.

''I get a lot of ivory from relatives who sell it to me at a good price with the understanding that when I start making money that I'll pay more,'' he explained. ''Not very often does money change hands. We barter for what we need.''

''Bavilla spends long days in his workshop trying to increase the number of pieces he can create. He often works 16 hours a day.

An ivory bracelet takes an average of 12 hours to finish. A mask can take a week. Bavilla also makes storytelling knives, earrings and ivory carvings.

''I may be struggling now, but it's like a rebirthing to what I really enjoy doing,'' he said. ''All I can do now is live day-to-day and do the best I can.''

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