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Whether expressing lasting ancestral ties to the land, or a sense of fleeting ephemerality, materials can convey meanings and evoke associations that extend beyond what they are used to represent.
James Barker, (b. 1932) Untitled (Upallret dancers use a walrus mask made by carver Earl Atchak), 1995 Photograph print Collection of the Anchorage Museum, gift of the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Community Folklife Program, 1996.42.6
These photographs highlight the intimate connection between land, animals, plants, and human culture. Women harvest and transform materials from the land into art, food, and useful objects. Practices around gathering, making, and giving thanks are physical manifestations of spiritual beliefs.
Masks are often used in celebrations and ceremonies to pay homage to the spirits of animals taken by hunters. These acts of thanksgiving are important for maintaining the balance between humans and the animals they depend on to survive.
In Alaska Native cultures, there is a use and a need for every part of an animal, so nothing goes to waste. Seal gut is processed and cleaned in a difficult and time-consuming process.
Yup’ik and other Alaska Native families gather berries through the summer and fall, storing them for the long winter. While out picking, it is important to honor the nunam yui, the land’s non-human inhabitants, by giving an offering of food and water.
James Barker, (b. 1932) Untitled (Francis Usugan of Toksook Bay holds dried seal gut), 1980 Silver gelatin print Collection of the Anchorage Museum, 2014.31.15
James Barker, (b. 1932)Untitled (Helen, Maggie and Shirley Wasuli pick salmonberries, Kotlik), 1983 Silver gelatin print Collection of the Anchorage Museum, 2014.31.20
Elsie Burkman, (1912-2004) 720 Front Street, 1969 Mushroom ink on paper Collection of the Anchorage Museum, gift of the Rasmuson Foundation, 1971.234.10ab
During the 1960s, Washington-based artist Elsie Burkman traveled throughout the west coast of North America, sketching and painting the landscape. She worked primarily in pencil and watercolor, but mushroom collecting and identification was her hobby, leading her to make a series of works with “mushroom juice” from ink cap mushrooms (Coprinopsis atramentaria).
Elsie Burkman, (1912-2004)Totem Road – Ketchikan, 1969 Mushroom ink on paper Collection of the Anchorage Museum, gift of the Rasmuson Foundation, 1971.234.11
Sonya Kelliher-Combs, (b. 1969) Mark, 2017 Mixed media Collection of the Anchorage Museum, 2019.3.3ae
In this work by Athabascan and Iñupiaq artist Sonya Kelliher-Combs, the artist has created a mark running along the pelts of several animals—seal, caribou, beaver, musk ox, and polar bear. These animals are critical to the lifeways of Athabascan and Iñupiat peoples, and Kelliher-Combs often incorporates them into her work. Her emphatic gouge through the skins draws attention to the fact that humans are constantly leaving their mark on the environment, with pipelines, roads, and other modifications that negatively impact the land that humans and animals depend on for survival.
Karen Stahlecker, (b. 1954) White Trees, c. 1986 Paper and wood Collection of the Anchorage Museum, 1987.2.4.ac
Made from handmade paper mounted on dried plant-fiber stalks, Karen Stahlecker’s White Trees reference the shape of books, transformed into trees. These delicate forms create an ethereal, three-dimensional experience of a winter landscape.
Leslie Shows, (b. 1977) Face K, 2011 Ink, acrylic, mylar, crushed glass on aluminum On loan from the artist
Face K is from a series based on images of pyrite rocks made with a flatbed scanner. Each work is a translation of these scans, using reflective industrial materials, delicate engraving, and ink painting.
Leslie Shows, a Los Angeles-based artist who grew up in Juneau, questions the colonial tendency to assign only aesthetic or industrial value to the non-human world. She seeks to disrupt or disorient the viewer into seeing something anew. She says, “Maybe there is something more within a stone that can be discovered, or listened to … Not just used but related to.”
Susan Joy Share, (b. 1954)Stressed and Crumpled #8, 2020Paper, crayon, acrylic sizingOn loan from the artist
For Susan Joy Share’s Stressed and Crumpled series, she applies crayon and acrylic sizing to paper that is repeatedly crumpled and unfolded. The resulting works look almost like topographical maps, evoking seasonal change — warm red in the autumn and green in the summer. Share’s crumpling and stretching of the paper echoes the geological forces of uplift and erosion that shape mountains over time.