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Alaska Native artist puts 'Restoration' on display

Trina Landlord
A T'uqa mask made with Kenai sockeye salmon skin, by artist Joel Isaak. Photo courtesy ANAF

Joel Isaak is the featured artist for the month of February at the Alaska Native Arts Foundation in downtown Anchorage. His solo exhibit is titled “Restoration,” and is about the exploration between emotion and environment through the manipulation of traditional Dena’ina materials.

Isaak is a member of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe from the Dena’ina region in Southcentral Alaska. He grew up in a small town on the coast of the Kenai Peninsula, spending summers outdoors fishing and harvesting large game in the fall.

Isaak’s current work reflects the duality of growing up in an Alaska Native and Northern European home. He combines Native materials and a modern industrial processes.

“I like working with traditional materials with contemporary form and function,” Isaak said.

Isaak indicated that in researching his cultural history and how it coincided with colonization, his early work was darker. Now, he chooses to focus on the positive interactions. He strives to communicate and explore issues that arise as a result of the impact of western civilization upon Alaska Native culture.

He works in a mix of media, including moose hide, salmon and halibut skin, copper, wood, bronze and ceramics. In this exhibit, one can expect to see moose-hide screens with shadow silhouettes and self-portraits and vessels holding light and objects made of fish skin. His self-portraits are not just of himself but also of his ancestors. He researched and went through archives of photographs of his family members going back for generations that inform his work.

Isaak said that the fish skins were functional and the aesthetic holds light well. He sees motion in the materials. Isaak seeks inspiration in the environment, saying that flying over the nothingness across Alaska’s vast wilderness is inspiring for installing art.

Isaak graduated with a Bachelors of Fine Arts majoring in Sculpture at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He studied the fish skin work of two other artists -- Fran Reed and Audrey Armstrong. He also likes the work of Sonya Kelliher-Combs and her synthetic paint-skin pieces that interact with light and depth.

He was an instructor at a youth culture camp in Soldotna, along with an elder. Isaak interviewed the elder who checked his work in fish skins making sure he was doing it in the traditional method. Isaak interviewed the elder, who approved of his work, and Isaak said that was validating.

This exhibition is installed to create an environment inspired by the vastness and beauty of ocean, in an indoor gallery space. It will feature small vessels in salmon skin suspended from overhead, utilizing light and shadow to manipulate the mood of the space. For the wall space, one can see two-foot long masks made of halibut skins and salmon skins with different appendages sculpted with light.

Trina Landlord is the Executive Director of the Alaska Native Arts Foundation. She can be reached at trina(at)alaskanativearts.org