Fairbanks artist honored at Festival of Native Arts

Posted: Thursday, March 15, 2001

FAIRBANKS -- Most of us are guilty of not paying attention to the world around us.

Even though we live in Alaska, many of us would be hard-pressed to name a passing bird or identify a freshly-laid animal track.

For Fairbanks artist Alvin Amason, the natural world is an intimately familiar one. The birds, the fish and the animals have always been his companions. Take the magpie, for instance.

''These birds are the ones that show up when you drop a deer,'' Amason said as he sat in his basement workshop. ''They're right there when you clean fish, too. They're just so beautiful.''

One recent work of Amason's was a loving recreation of that regular companion on hunting and fishing trips. In Kodiak, where Amason grew up, the magpie is a regular. The species doesn't exist in the Interior though, and Amason found himself missing the black-and-white birds.

''I called it 'Homesick for you' because I missed magpies,'' Amason said.

The magpie piece is a combination of bas-relief sculpture and painting. The bird has an articulated beak jutting out playfully. A string system allows the bird's beak to open and close.

''I like the sound it makes when it opens and closes,'' Amason said.

Creations like the magpie, a fusing of traditional Native knowledge and playful modern art techniques, are the reason that Amason was honored Feb. 23 during the Festival of Native Arts at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He is hailed for both his contributions to the art world and for teaching students from all corners of the state and beyond.

The 52-year-old Aleut's works can be found in museums and collections around the world, including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Nordjyl-lands Kuntsmuseum in Denmark and the collection of Aleksy II, the partriarch of Moscow and Russia.

Here in Alaska, he's been honored by Gov. Tony Knowles with a Governor's Award for Arts and also was given a lifetime achievement award by the Nature Conservancy of Alaska.

It is easy to see why his art is popular among museum curators and private collectors. Perhaps the most alluring aspect of his work is the whimsy with which he portrays the animals of his Kodiak Island home.

A fanciful seal hat is painted a greenish-blue and its black spots seem to shimmer as if seen through water.

''The seal,'' Amason said, ''is a painter's animal.''

In another piece, a sea otter lies on its back, cracking a shell against a stone held to its belly. Amason titled the piece ''Praying.''

His art wasn't always like this. After graduating from Kodiak High, Amason went to Central Washington University and attempted to become a mechanical engineer. But he found the line drawing and rigid rules of the discipline offputting.

''One day I signed up for a water color class and just loved it,'' he said. ''I stuck with that. It was a hard decison because my family was into commercial fishing and my grandfather was a bear guide. So I had opportunities to go into these areas.''

Eventually, the traditional ways of hunting and fishing taught to him by his elders became part of his art.

He continued to take art courses and moved on to Arizona State University, where he earned his master's degree in fine arts. He covered the gamut, from airbrush to realism to abstraction. But it wasn't until a professor saw a series of journals that Amason kept for fun that he began down an artistic path that would take him home to Kodiak.

''I always wrote down stuff when I was commercial fishing,'' he said. ''I just liked the way people talked and I wanted to capture that. They had such a funny way of looking at things.''

By drawing from his own past experience and the cultural knowledge, Amason's art is more than a recreation of nature. The playful seal with the stiff wire whiskers is modeled on a hat that Aleut hunters wore when stalking Kodiak's rocky shoreline.

He tries to show his students this blending of art and function as a way to keep traditions and culture alive. As a teacher, he grounds his pupils in the rudimentary skills of creating art. Learning tools, curved knives and adzes, for instance, often gives the students their first experience with working with their hands. He stresses the use of native woods and materials as well.

The ideas can come from anywhere, from ''something simple like a phrase out of a rock song.'' But that's just a starting point.

''I don't know where I'm going, but there's no purpose if you do,'' he said.

''I just keep on trying things. It's like getting snagged in the mouth of a salmon. It just keeps pulling you along.''

HEAD:Fairbanks artist honored at Festival of Native Arts

BYLINE1:By CHRIS TALBOTT

BYLINE2:Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

FAIRBANKS -- Most of us are guilty of not paying attention to the world around us.

Even though we live in Alaska, many of us would be hard-pressed to name a passing bird or identify a freshly-laid animal track.

For Fairbanks artist Alvin Amason, the natural world is an intimately familiar one. The birds, the fish and the animals have always been his companions. Take the magpie, for instance.

''These birds are the ones that show up when you drop a deer,'' Amason said as he sat in his basement workshop. ''They're right there when you clean fish, too. They're just so beautiful.''

One recent work of Amason's was a loving recreation of that regular companion on hunting and fishing trips. In Kodiak, where Amason grew up, the magpie is a regular. The species doesn't exist in the Interior though, and Amason found himself missing the black-and-white birds.

''I called it 'Homesick for you' because I missed magpies,'' Amason said.

The magpie piece is a combination of bas-relief sculpture and painting. The bird has an articulated beak jutting out playfully. A string system allows the bird's beak to open and close.

''I like the sound it makes when it opens and closes,'' Amason said.

Creations like the magpie, a fusing of traditional Native knowledge and playful modern art techniques, are the reason that Amason was honored Feb. 23 during the Festival of Native Arts at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He is hailed for both his contributions to the art world and for teaching students from all corners of the state and beyond.

The 52-year-old Aleut's works can be found in museums and collections around the world, including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Nordjyl-lands Kuntsmuseum in Denmark and the collection of Aleksy II, the partriarch of Moscow and Russia.

Here in Alaska, he's been honored by Gov. Tony Knowles with a Governor's Award for Arts and also was given a lifetime achievement award by the Nature Conservancy of Alaska.

It is easy to see why his art is popular among museum curators and private collectors. Perhaps the most alluring aspect of his work is the whimsy with which he portrays the animals of his Kodiak Island home.

A fanciful seal hat is painted a greenish-blue and its black spots seem to shimmer as if seen through water.

''The seal,'' Amason said, ''is a painter's animal.''

In another piece, a sea otter lies on its back, cracking a shell against a stone held to its belly. Amason titled the piece ''Praying.''

His art wasn't always like this. After graduating from Kodiak High, Amason went to Central Washington University and attempted to become a mechanical engineer. But he found the line drawing and rigid rules of the discipline offputting.

''One day I signed up for a water color class and just loved it,'' he said. ''I stuck with that. It was a hard decison because my family was into commercial fishing and my grandfather was a bear guide. So I had opportunities to go into these areas.''

Eventually, the traditional ways of hunting and fishing taught to him by his elders became part of his art.

He continued to take art courses and moved on to Arizona State University, where he earned his master's degree in fine arts. He covered the gamut, from airbrush to realism to abstraction. But it wasn't until a professor saw a series of journals that Amason kept for fun that he began down an artistic path that would take him home to Kodiak.

''I always wrote down stuff when I was commercial fishing,'' he said. ''I just liked the way people talked and I wanted to capture that. They had such a funny way of looking at things.''

By drawing from his own past experience and the cultural knowledge, Amason's art is more than a recreation of nature. The playful seal with the stiff wire whiskers is modeled on a hat that Aleut hunters wore when stalking Kodiak's rocky shoreline.

He tries to show his students this blending of art and function as a way to keep traditions and culture alive. As a teacher, he grounds his pupils in the rudimentary skills of creating art. Learning tools, curved knives and adzes, for instance, often gives the students their first experience with working with their hands. He stresses the use of native woods and materials as well.

The ideas can come from anywhere, from ''something simple like a phrase out of a rock song.'' But that's just a starting point.

''I don't know where I'm going, but there's no purpose if you do,'' he said.

''I just keep on trying things. It's like getting snagged in the mouth of a salmon. It just keeps pulling you along.''



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