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Alaska Native artist Joel Isaak uses fish skins to communicate emotion, culture

Shehla Anjum | First Alaskans
"Healing Place" by Joel Isaak. Cast bronze mask sewn together with salmon skin.
Alaska Native Arts Foundation
Athabaskan artist and fashion designer Joel Isaak shows off his fish skin leather wares, at Alaska Native Arts Foundation's fashion show Wear Art Thou.
Tara Young photo
Athabaskan artist and fashion designer Joel Isaak shows off his fish skin leather wares, at Alaska Native Arts Foundation's fashion show Wear Art Thou.
Tara Young photo
Athabaskan artist and fashion designer Joel Isaak shows off his fish skin leather wares, at Alaska Native Arts Foundation's fashion show Wear Art Thou.
Tara Young photo
Alaska Native artist Joel Isaak in front of his piece Dnigi Tiq’ets’tnaz’uyi (moose hide silhouette) at his solo show “Restorations” in February 2013 at the Alaska Native Arts Foundation in Anchorage.
Courtesy Shehla Anjum
Salmon skin mask by Joel Isaak.
Alaska Native Arts Foundation
A fish skin mask by Joel Isaak. “Seeing the facial images in the fish makes you think about the interaction between the two,” says Wendy Croskrey, an associate professor in UAF’s art department and Isaak’s advisor.
Alaska Native Arts Foundation

At age 8, Joel Isaak watched a television program about Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica. The film juxtaposed images of the artwork with those of the village bombed during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso’s cry of anguish and rage at the violence of war left a mark.

Isaak was young, but he understood the message the painting sent. His paternal grandfather, a doctor, served in World War II, and Isaak remembers hearing discussions of the days of pain, sorrow and horror.

“The story and the images associated with the painting evoked strong emotions in me,” Isaak said. “I could relate to the idea of people being displaced by force, being judged by how they looked. As a person with Native heritage, I understood that pain.”

Isaak is now an artist himself. His works incorporate elements of both his Native and his European heritage. His love for working with live materials, such as roots, bark, and skins, came from a desire to pursue the historical materials and processes used by his Athabascan ancestors. But Isaak credits the European part of his heritage for the realization of art’s power to express emotion and to communicate.

Since graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in sculpture from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2012, Isaak has received widespread acclaim for his work. The Alaska Native Arts Foundation held a solo exhibition of his work in February 2013. The Anchorage Museum asked him to make several fish skin objects for its recent “Dena’ina Huch’ulyshi” exhibit. The Alaska Native Heritage Center asked him to conduct a daylong class on fish skin work. Last year, the Alaska Native Heritage Month committee recognized Isaak with an Alaska Native Visionary Award, which recognizes Alaska Natives who work to preserve culture through various forms of artistic expression. 

Isaak, born and raised in Soldotna, is a member of the Kenaitze Tribe of the Dena’ina Athabascan through his mother. At 25, he is best known for his signature work using fish skin. Fish skins were traditionally used to make utilitarian objects such as clothing and containers. But as times changed, few people were left who made those things. The skill nearly died.

In recent years, however, several Native artists have started working with natural materials, including fish skins, to create items such as vases, and baskets. Isaak uses fish skins to create not only masks and baskets but also wearable art such as boots, jackets and dresses.

Monochromatic with subtle colors

His use of the translucent fish skin to depict a human face is a metaphoric use of that material, emphasizing the artist’s heritage and the connections between fish and people in Native culture. Isaak’s creations are mostly monochromatic, but contain subtle variations in shade and color.

“Joel was creating things from an early age. As a little boy, whenever he saw my mother, his Grandma Glady, working on her Norwegian Hardanger embroidery he’d sit in her lap, take a skein of yarn and start weaving with his finger,” said his mother, Sharon Isaak.

Life in Soldotna revolved around fishing in the summer and processing large game in the fall, activities that became an important part of his artistic process. Isaak lived in a multicultural Alaska Native and Northern European home. He said that upbringing “inspires my current work’s exploration and reflection on these two culture’s interactions and histories.”

He took art classes in high school and especially liked pottery. Isaak remembers his first encounter with clay at age 4, when his family was repairing a chicken yard. Helping to dig postholes, he dislodged layers of peat, topsoil and clay. “I was completely enthralled with the clay. I molded it into pie shapes, made little nests to put rocks in, and tried to roll coils out of it.  I loved it.”

Isaak’s love for clay intensified when his family took him dipnetting later in childhood. “At the end of the day when I cleaned the wetsuits I learned how clay particles acted. I looked forward to every July, not for the fishing but for the clay.” 

Chemistry and ceramics

During his senior year of high school, Isaak went to Europe with his father. An ancient bronze Greek statue at the Vatican became a touchstone for a work he later created in Alaska. “The luster and the strength of that statue fascinated me. It was very realistic and it signified the iconic perfection of Western art. It made me want to learn the lost wax casting technique that created that powerful statue.”

At UAF Isaak initially majored in chemistry, though he also took an art class in ceramics. During that class, Rebekah Rice, a ceramics artist from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who was then spending a year in Alaska, noted Isaak’s work. She urged him to change majors and to think about art as a profession. “I didn’t see him being a chemist. I encouraged him to take as many of the art classes as he could and learn as much as he could. He loves art very much, and when he is making art he comes alive,” Rice said.

Isaak switched majors in 2011. The combination of art and science drives his work today. “Science and art have always been parallel or interconnected for me. I approach art through a scientific method, I have an analytical mind and I am always searching for a moment of discovery in my art,” he said.

One such moment came at UAF with fish skins. Isaak knew about fish skins being used to make traditional objects, but had paid little attention to the material. “Rebekah helped me change my mind. When she was at UAF, she kept telling me to look at a fish skin bowl at the museum. She had a feeling that I would like it.  She and I spoke a lot about art, and she knew I’d grown up by the beach and that fish were a big part of our lives,” Isaak said.

The bowl was by Fran Reed, a non-Native who had learned traditional fish skin sewing from a Venetie elder and helped revive the art in the 1980s.

“I finally went and looked at the bowl. And I fell in love with it. I immediately knew I had to learn how to make things with fish skin.

“I was drawn to it because it was a live material. It has luminescence; its thinness makes it look fragile but it’s very strong. It was the closest thing to human skin that I could work with. Its contradictions intrigued me. And best of all, fish skin was all around me.”

'Interesting and haunting'

Isaak spent a year researching the art and craft of fish skins, including seeking knowledge from Helen Dick (Dena’ina), an Athabascan culture bearer from Lime Village who had been taught to work with fish skins by her elders.            

The Native side of Isaak’s heritage is most evident in his salmon skin masks. Wendy Croskrey, an associate professor in UAF’s art department and his advisor, helped him develop the molds for the masks. “He used something that is utilitarian and put a human element into it,” says Croskrey. “It’s both interesting and haunting. And seeing the facial images in the fish makes you think about the interaction between the two.”

Isaak’s 2013 solo show “Restoration” at the Alaska Native Arts Foundation in Anchorage was held in a tight space, but Isaak used the space creatively to display his fish skin masks, vases, drums and a moose-hide silhouette.

Iñupiaq artist Sonya Kelliher-Combs, who saw the show, was impressed with the art and its presentation. “Joel transformed the space, he made it his own in how he displayed so many things but without making it look cramped,” she said.

“Restoration” dwelt on the idea of an individual’s relationship within a large group such as a tribe or even a mass of migrating fish. “I hung small salmon skin baskets and masks with human faces from the ceilings,” Isaak said. The small baskets represented the ordinary or the entity as a whole, the masks the individual. When people walked by the installation it moved and turned ever so slightly, like a run of salmon going up the Kenai River. 

Isaak is still busy making art and teaching art classes. But he is also applying to art schools on the East Coast and hopes to begin graduate studies in the fall. He plans to continue working with fish skins, but with Atlantic species such as bass, eel and flounder. He plans to return to Alaska and teach.

In the meantime he is finishing up a project started in college -- a wife and a child to accompany the bronze statue of an Athabascan fisherman that Isaak created for his senior thesis exhibition at UAF. They form part of a commissioned “family fish camp” grouping that will be permanently installed in Alaska later this year. Isaak goes regularly to UAF to work on completing his sculptures of the Athabascan family group.

In graduate school, and beyond, Isaak said he will continue exploring and pushing himself to new challenges, just as he does in his work with fish skins.

“I like to push boundaries to the point of failure. So I experiment a lot and try to find ways to wrest as much as I can from the materials I work with.”

This story originally appeared in the current issue of First Alaskans magazine. Used with permission.