Photographer celebrates Kuskokwim life with an exhibit of 'hero portraits'

Mike Dunham
Native Yup’ik elder, female, sitting in her smokehouse with salmon hanging behind her, summer, Tuluksak.
Kevin G. Smith
Stanley, Kalskag. Smith's photos often identify subjects by their first name only.
Kevin G. Smith
The mural at George Morgan Senior High School in Kalskag
Kevin G. Smith
Native Yup’ik child standing in the doorway and looking out at her family’s fish camp cabin on the Kuskokwim River, summer, Akiachak
Kevin G. Smith

Kevin Smith's giant "community portrait" murals can be found in Alaska's public buildings from Palmer to the Chukchi Sea, detail-filled collages made from hundreds of miniaturized elements encapsulating bits of the past, present and permanent landscapes of the places they celebrate. "You can stand in front of it staring for hours," Smith said.

In contrast, "Kusko Living," his solo show opening at the International Gallery of Contemporary Art on Friday, will feature a few very large photos of Native elders and others associated one way or another with the murals, but shown in individual "hero portraits."

The formats may be different, but the idea is the same. "I'm trying to preserve the culture," Smith said. "These pictures I take, once they go up on a wall, they preserve culture and identity."

Originally from Bellingham, Wash., Smith came to Alaska in 1983 to attend the University of Alaska Anchorage on a basketball scholarship. He got a degree in advertising and public relations and took photo classes with Sam Kimura.

He also spent several years in Germany, playing semi-professional basketball and heading up the advertising for an electronics firm. He returned to Anchorage with a German-born wife, architect Petra Sattler-Smith, and honed his photographic skills as an assistant for the prominent Alaska photographer Chris Arend.

As a commercial photographer he did a lot of work for local architectural companies. One of them landed a contract to build three new village schools for the Yupiit School District in Western Alaska, and he found himself involved in the planning.

The school district had asked for a "hall of elders," but were not specific about what that might mean. "We came up with the idea of a community portrait," Smith said, a "giant jigsaw puzzle" that would include images of the area in all seasons, historical and modern photos, a mosaic of the people of the village and the land around it.

The first school to get a mural was Tuluksak, in 2005, followed by Akiachak and Akiak.

"Everyone who saw them thought they were pretty cool," Smith said. "It just snowballed from there."

To date he's done such murals for schools in Deering, Shungnak, Noatak and Machetanz Elementary in Palmer. The most recent mural went up in November at the George Morgan Senior High School in Kalskag. Six feet tall and 58 feet long, it wraps around three walls of the school's common space.

He has similar public artwork pieces at Fire Station 4 in Anchorage and the Harry MacDonald Memorial Center ice rink in Eagle River. He's currently working on a series of murals for the school in Anaktuvuk Pass.


Working on 'bush time'

For his material, he copies old pictures from the village. "I go house to house. I've been in crawl spaces and attics trying to find stuff." At the end of a project, the village and school get a CD with all the historical photos on them. That's part of the commission, but also a practical preservation measure, he said. "If there's a fire or flood, all these pictures would disappear."

He also takes his own pictures. The Kalskag mural features a 360 degree panoramic profile from the hills above the town. "I try to capture all four seasons if possible," he said.

Then come shots of the current village and its current residents, in some way the hardest part.

"I'm kind of shy by nature," he said. "It's not easy to be a stranger and walk into people's lives asking them to stand here, sit there. Asking them, 'How would you like to be seen preserved forever?' But I try to include everyone in the village, especially the elders. I approach each one and, if they don't want to be in it, that's their choice."

The hardest part, he said, is dealing with the different priorities in rural Alaska, the reality of "Bush time."

"You can call someone and set up an appointment and when you get there they say, 'Oh, he went to Bethel. Had to get stove oil. He'll be back in two days.' "

The difference between a fun and an intimidating experience is the attitude of his contact in the village. "Some of them are really jazzed, outgoing, happy people," he said. "It really helps. Sometimes it's like a local arts council, sometimes it's the kids in the school, teachers, the village council president. They come up with lists of elders and help me meet them and explain what we're trying to do."

"There were a few elders who were hesitant at the beginning," said Jackie Levi, tribal president for Lower Kalskag, who guided Smith when he worked on the George Morgan mural. "But after I told them that their grandchildren would always have a picture of them, that they could look up and know where the picture of their grandpa and grandma was, they were more willing."

Levi said Smith also helped himself by making multiple trips and building on each one. "Everyone who participated received one 8-by-10 picture of themselves from him, at least one pose. Everyone loved their picture."

In fact, she said, in the few months since the pictures were taken, some of the subjects have passed away and their families have chosen to display Smith's photo at the funeral or in the memorial program.

"I typically make multiple trips," Smith said. "By the third trip about half of the people in the village already have their prints and everyone else has seen them and likes what they see."

In the event that someone's photo is used commercially, they receive 20 percent of the purchase price. Smith said that's about double the standard modeling fee.

But the murals aren't about money. "It's to document the elders and other community members," said Levi. "To show people about life in our villages."


Bad coffee, great people

When the multiple images are assembled, they can be printed on a variety of media -- the most common is a kind of "vinyl wallpaper," Smith said -- sent to the installation site and put up fairly easily.

The finished product brings him a great deal of satisfaction, he said. "When you see kids walk into a space and stop and spend an hour looking at the wall at their mothers and grandparents and uncles, that's pretty cool. People who use the spaces say kids are better behaved and less distracted."

The idea of presenting these relatives as role models "instead of Batman, the Transformers and Barbie" is part of the motivation behind the "hero portraits" at the International. (The exhibit will also feature reproductions of some of the community mural pieces from the Kuskokwim area.) To foster a "larger than life" feel, Smith's pictures are Photoshopped, enhanced, retouched, the colors heightened. Wrinkle lines become darker and the stories they convey feel brighter. Eyes shine and intensely fix the viewer.

"It's the same thing we do with commercial photography," he said. "I just carry them over into an art project."

The hero portraits are also, in a sense, Smith's way of thanking the villagers for their hospitality.

"I've drunk a lot of bad coffee and met a lot of really great people," he said.

"I feel that the majority of people that live in the urban centers of Alaska have little knowledge about how the Native/rural community lives," he said. "I hope that my impressions from this region will provide an opportunity for reflection on the urban-rural divide we have in this state and bring up the question: What does it mean to be a 'real Alaskan'?"

Smith's exhibit will run at the International Gallery of Contemporary Art through the end of March. At 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 5, he will present a slide lecture at the Anchorage Museum, 625 C St. Admission is free; use the 7th Ave. entrance.


Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.