New Native artist unveils sculpture

Posted: Thursday, December 26, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Othniel Art Oomittuk screwed 500-pound bones into the frozen ground last week.

In a dim late-afternoon light on Monday outside an Anchorage office building, the Inupiaq artist showed off his newest creation.

Towering above him, a massive whale jaw bone made of bronze shot 15 feet up into the air.

Strung between the two bones with stainless-steel rope was a seal skin, also made of bronze, with the faces of an Inupiaq woman and man on opposite sides. Their eyes are made of baleen.

''I wanted a connection between the whale and the people,'' said Oomittuk, 39.

Oomittuk was born in Point Hope and went to high school in Barrow where whaling hunting and other subsistence gathering was the centerpiece of the culture.

The enormous sculpture that Oomittuk installed last week was commissioned by the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and adorns the entrance to the new Arctic Slope office building on C Street in Anchorage.

The whale and seal skin sculpture is titled ''Naluqatuk Kagruq.'' The name means whale festival in two dialects spoken by North Slope Natives, Oomittuk said.

The piece is modeled after a well-known sculpture in Barrow of a real-life whale jaw bone that stands behind Brower's Cafe on the shore of the Arctic Ocean.

Oomittuk is an up-and-coming Native artist who lives in Rainier, Ore. This is his first sculpture and he has been carving for only five years.

Oomittuk's early inspiration was his grandfather, who made Eskimo drums and created masks from whale bone.

The piece for Arctic Slope is a huge career step, said Oomittuk, a mixed-media carver who is making a name for himself within Native American art circles in the Lower 48.

Oomittuk, who carves masks from yellow and red cedar, has won three consecutive first-place awards in Northwest Indian art competitions. He has exhibited in Oregon, Washington and Japan.

Oomittuk decided to try sculpture after learning that his Native corporation was seeking art for the exterior of the new building. He drew a design, built a model and sent it to the corporation.

The artist originally planned to make a 12-foot sculpture with a seal skin strung between the bones. But company officials worried that children might try to swing on the steel ropes if it was that low to the ground. Oomittuk extended the height by 3 feet.

After high school, Oomittuk headed south and majored in fine art at Western Oregon State. He stayed in Oregon and worked as a graphic designer for several years before pursuing his art full time.

Now that he's becoming more recognized as an artist, Oomittuk is planning to move back to Alaska. He said it would have been harder to make a name for himself had he stayed here all along.

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