Joee Redington blazes new trail as artist

Posted: Sunday, April 29, 2001

WASILLA (AP) -- Dog musher Joee Redington is blazing new trails in the arts, crafting dream catchers, masks and figurines with the same passion he pours into his sprint dog racing team.

His skills as an artist, cultivated while he was recuperating from heart bypass surgery about four years ago, draw on his subsistence upbringing and current lifestyle in Manley, population 88, a small town west of Fairbanks in Alaska's Interior.

Each piece tells a story.

''My art work comes from living my whole life with Eskimos and Indians,'' said Redington, 57, who grew up on homesteads established by his dad, Joe Redington Sr., father of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Using a large caribou antler as a frame, Redington carefully selects a smooth white piece of birch bark, then cuts a dark brown piece of birch bark into the shape of a bear. A third piece of birch bark, tan in color, is cut into the shape of a fish. He carefully hand stitches the bear and fish onto the white bark. Then he attaches his bark pictograph to his hand woven fish net, trimmed with a few beads, and stretches the web within the curve of the antler.

For another piece, Redington uses a hand-held electric rotary tool to carve a dream scene, with faces etched into the antlers. A woman ''is waking up from a dream, seeing the dancing little people who were performing as she slept,'' he said. ''She is made from a moose antler and the little people are made from caribou antlers trimmed in caribou hair tufts, porcupine quills, grouse and ptarmigan feathers.''

A third piece depicts a group of four Eskimo dancers with drums. The dancers are made from shed caribou antlers, trimmed with ptarmigan and grouse feathers. The drums are crafted from moose antler with drum sticks of baleen, from the mouth of a whale.

''My wife says that's when I have the most patience, when I am doing stuff like this,'' said Redington. ''I get a lot of satisfaction out of it. It's just fun to make it and see how it turns out.''

Each piece is different, owing in part to the shapes and colors of the bark and antlers. ''You're not going to find two pieces alike,'' he said, during a recent trip to Wasilla, to market several pieces in local gift shops.

Redington does most of his work in a shop on his homestead in Manley, where he and his wife, Pam, have a kennel with about 70 sprint sled dogs and their own gift shop.

Growing up in a family where everyone had their own sled dog team, Redington began with three- and five-dog teams. In 1966, while serving in the Army in Anchorage, Redington won the World Championship Sled Dog Race at the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous.

This year he ran the Open North American Championship in Fairbanks, plus races at Manley, Tok and Tanana, while working on his art.

Normally summer months would find Redington commercial fishing for salmon, but fish runs have been poor in recent years. Last year, his harvest at the mouth of the Yukon was 10 king salmon. This summer he plans to spend most of his time working on art.

At his side often, armed with his own electric hand tool, is 3-year-old grandson Robbie, who inspects each finished piece, exclaims his approval, and also helps polish antlers.

Teaching his grandson the craft comes naturally to Redington, whose own dad and grandfather taught him to weave willow baskets. Joe Redington Sr. and his father sold willow baskets in Pennsylvania during the Great Depression, to make ends meet. On the Redington homesteads in Alaska, they passed their knowledge on to the next generation.

''Joee made the prettiest ones, because he was the most meticulous,'' said Vi Redington, Joe Sr.'s widow.

The effort is starting to pay off. Redington will have his own gallery area this summer in the rustic little Knik Museum, outside of Wasilla along the Iditarod Trail.

''I consider these to be works of art,'' said Benoni Nelson, who manages the gallery area in the museum's mushers hall of fame, where Redington's mushing trophies are on display.

Meanwhile, Redington, armed with a fresh supply of antlers from the tundra, and birch bark honed mostly from firewood, is busy with his grandson, creating more masks, dream catchers and other carvings.

''There are so many things you can see in these materials,'' he said. ''If not today, I'll see it tomorrow. I'll come back later and create more.''

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