From boarding school to big time

December 4, 2010 

Patrons walking into the First Friday opening at the Alaska Native Arts Foundation gallery last month were greeted by a spot-on portrait of Chevak elder David Boyscout. Except, in this portrait, he isn't an elder but a relatively young man.

The painting was done 30-some years ago by Moses Wassilie, an artist much in the news at that time, somewhat under the radar since then, but back with his first solo show (continuing this month) in years.

It might also be his last, he said. Age is taking its toll, especially in the arduous work of carving. "I've already slowed down," he said. "It used to take me a year to do a mask. Now it's five years. I keep thinking about retiring and wanting to."

The exhibit at the Native arts foundation in downtown Anchorage isn't exactly a solo show either. He's sharing the space with his two sons, Mike and Nicholas, each with their own work also on display.

But Dad's the main attraction here, not just because of his name and fame, but because of the variety of work on display and the span of time it covers.

In some ways, it's like a retrospective of his career, with oils, pastels, acrylics, mask forms and sculptures, representative portraits (like the one of Boyscout) and abstract images. There's even an ivory and baleen tiara he created for a beauty pageant and which, he notes with a laugh, must have been unbelievably uncomfortable for the winner to wear.

KWETHLUK EPIPHANY

Moses Wassilie was born in Nunapitchuk, near Bethel. Like many other Yup'ik children, he found himself in a boarding school, specifically the Moravian Children's Home at Kwethluk.

There are many bad memories associated with boarding schools, he admitted. But, he added, "Good things can happen anywhere you are."

For Wassilie, the best thing was a visit to the school by artist Muriel Hannah in 1958. Hannah was a well-known portraitist who traveled throughout Bush Alaska making fine pastel pictures of Natives that were widely circulated on airline and store calendars.

Today some of those portraits remain in circulation -- most handsomely framed and treasured by the descendents and friends of the subjects, and even the subjects themselves.

Wassilie remembers Hannah as "a little old lady. She set up her easel and made a portrait right on the spot. I watched and I was amazed. I tried it myself, but I didn't do very well. The eyes were uneven; it might have been more like a Picasso."

Maybe it was the special paper and pastels, he thought. But then, "She took a brown paper bag and chalk from the chalk board and did it again, even better than the first time."

The quick lesson in using whatever materials are at hand has stuck with him ever since. So did the entrancement of bringing a person's face to life on a piece of paper.

As a teenager, he attended Mount Edgecumbe School in Sitka. "I was always drawing pictures from home," he said. "The teachers encouraged me. I entered it in an art contest in Sitka and won first place in the portraits category. Then everybody wanted a drawing."

Wassilie sold his drawings for $5 apiece, a fortune for Mt. Edgebumbe students who could catch the ferry over to the big city of Sitka for 10 cents. He could pay for all his friends to hit the town.

He also played in bands, using the play-by-ear technique he picked up in Kwethluk when assigned the task of accompanying hymns on an old piano. (That task had a special benefit, he noted, in that he practiced on a piano in the girls dorm, where he began to delve into boogie-woogie.)

"Each group had their own band. I played with the Yup'ik band, but there was a Southeast band and an Interior band too. The Pribilof band was probably the best."

SLEEPING AT THE MUSEUM

After graduating from Mt. Edgecumbe in 1966, he was accepted at the Institute of Native American Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He didn't last long there, he said, due to homesickness and the dry weather. "I had these nosebleeds all the time."

He then studied at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, having solo shows at Clair Fejes' Alaska House Gallery and other venues in the late 1960s. Though he explored different styles -- "I had sort of an impressionist period in Fairbanks" -- it was the realistic paintings that caught people's attention. Much in the style of Muriel Hannah, his subjects could always be recognized.

The Fairbanks shows led to more shows in Anchorage, where he eventually settled, but not without a few dicey moments.

"All of my friends were done with school and had gone back to Bethel or their home villages. I was pretty much alone in Anchorage and not sure where I'd stay or what I'd do. That's when Michael Kennedy helped me out."

Kennedy was the director of what was then known as the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. He displayed Wassilie's work, gave him space in the museum to work and sell his art during the day and, perhaps most important, "He gave me a cot in the back room. I lived at the museum."

For the tourists he painted portraits and did carvings. But he also became interested in creating "found art" assemblages.

"I had what I called my 'Beef and Sea Series,'" he said. The Beef and Sea was a restaurant near the Westward Hotel where he often took his meals. He would keep the bones and shells of whatever he had for lunch and work them into small sculptures.

"It was NOT tourist art," he said. "It was off-the-wall, whimsical. The tourists were interested, but they wouldn't buy any of it. They kept saying, 'Can you make a billikin?' "

But Kennedy bought every one of the "junque-art" pieces.

Soon enough Wassilie was showing with the big names in Alaska art, Fred Machetanz, Robert Mayokok and others. Commissions came in and brought a steady stream of income. With the money he made from portraits he could indulge in experimental art whether it sold or not and jam around town with different bands as occasions presented themselves.

His name was known. He didn't need to advertise. He could work outside the galleries. Several of the pieces in the current show (which is refreshed, with articles switched out over the run) had to be borrowed back from the corporations that purchased them years ago.

FAMILY CONNECTION

Though Wassilie has made regular appearances at group shows, including the Alaska Federation of Natives Arts and Crafts sales, the Native arts foundation show represents a departure from his independent pattern of recent decades. "When this show came up, I jumped at the chance," he said. "Not only do I get a show, but it's a way to bring out my sons."

Nicholas and Mike (short for Michelangelo) have masks and traditional pieces on display, a harpoon and throwing board, hunting visors decorated with ivory and other material.

Moses Wassilie himself said he's become more interested in making traditional items, Yup'ik drums, dance fans and regalia.

But "junque art," his term, remains interesting to him.

"We grew up poor, so maybe making things out of stuff that people throw away is a kind of protest," he said.

One of the works, a mask form titled "Arctic Night," uses a cog from a discarded rototiller as an eye, also signifying the North Star, signifying 50 years of Alaska statehood and Wassilie's 50th year as a professional artist.

A matching cog is used in a separate sculpture. Having different pieces sharing elements reflects the family nature of this show, he suggested.

He's also using driftwood -- "found, not manufactured" -- and scraps from a fence that formerly stood around his house and studio in Muldoon.

"When I got started, I couldn't afford good supplies, mahogany, exotic woods. I did a lot of work in sepia, using charcoal, because that's all I could afford. My new paintings have all kinds of color and good paper."

But the new pieces at the foundation show declare that recycling remains close to his heart.

The same fascination that gripped him when, 50 years ago, he watched Muriel Hannah magically produce a face on a brown paper bag can be heard when he says, "You can create art with just about anything."


Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.

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