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By breaking rules, Native artist injects power into his work

Suzanna Caldwell
Alaska Native artist Drew Michael putting the finishing touches on a mask entitled 'Tina's Little Cheeks.' October 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Alaska Native artist Drew Michael putting the finishing touches on a mask entitled 'Tina's Little Cheeks.' October 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Alaska Native artist Drew Michael putting the finishing touches on a mask entitled 'Tina's Little Cheeks.' October 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Alaska Native artist Drew Michael putting the finishing touches on a mask entitled 'Tina's Little Cheeks.' October 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Alaska Native artist Drew Michael putting the finishing touches on a mask entitled 'Tina's Little Cheeks.' October 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Alaska Native artist Drew Michael, right, with friend Ricky Teel, look at Michael's mask 'Tina's Little Cheeks.' October 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Alaska Native artist Drew Michael putting the finishing touches on a mask entitled 'Tina's Little Cheeks.' October 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Alaska Native artist Drew Michael putting the finishing touches on a mask entitled 'Tina's Little Cheeks.' October 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
'Tina's Little Cheeks,' a mask by Alaska Native artist Drew Michael. October 25, 2012
Courtesy Drew Michael
Alaska Native artist Drew Michael putting the finishing touches on a mask entitled 'Tina's Little Cheeks.' October 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Alaska Native artist Drew Michael putting the finishing touches on a mask entitled 'Tina's Little Cheeks.' October 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Alaska Native artist Drew Michael putting the finishing touches on a mask entitled 'Tina's Little Cheeks.' October 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo

When it comes to the work of artist Drew Michael, he's all about breaking the rules if it means finding a voice. Michael’s masks, steeped in Alaska Native traditions, use a blend of traditional and some very non-traditional materials. Wire and candle wax. Spruce and seaweed. Baleen and Barbie dolls.

While mixing materials is hardly new, there's something moving about Michael's masks. Though not unfinished, Michael's carved masks aren’t smoothed out. Many include scorch marks, a symbolic reference to the Yup'ik tradition of burning masks after their ceremonial use.

But together, the details lend a primal, rugged feel to his work.

'When an artist gets powerful'

It's a step in the evolution of the Anchorage-based artist, who for more than half of his life has been finding voice through mask-making, and, in an unexpected turn, finding himself in leadership role among Native artists. And a segment in "American Hipster." And a mention as one of the Anchorage Hotties 2012, according to Anchorage Press.

“The idea of wanting to tell my own story instead of someone else's, that's when an artist gets powerful,” Michael says.

On a recent chilly morning, Michael sits drinking coffee and working on his newest creation in his East Anchorage home. It's a mask, with long, droopy jowls. He calls it “Tina's Little Cheeks,” a nickname for his boyfriend, Ricky, whose round cheeks inspired the piece.

Michael loves facial expressions, and they’re often the catalyst for a new piece. “I like to borrow from faces around me,” he says. “Mesh designs from friend's faces, exaggerating someone's expression. Making a strong character a crazier character.”

'A slow death'

But of all the faces in Michael's work -- each mask takes anywhere from 24 to 60 hours to complete -- the one used most often is his own, both literally and figuratively.

Consider pieces like “Escape,” a wild-looking mask with burnt canvas and silver hands crawling through the eye slits. Michael, 28, says it comes from a time when he was trying to accept multiple aspects of his life -- an unfulfilling job as a truck driver on the North Slope, his sexuality, his church.

“It felt like I was trying to escape my situation,” he says. “I felt really trapped, like I was dying a slow death."

“Insanity for Thought,” is a piece Michael describes as “Tim Burton-y” in style -- a round face, with a wire tree protruding from the top, small ravens dangling from the branches. Under one of the hollow eyes is a burn in the shape of a tear drop. Michael says it represents the chaos surrounding all the thoughts swirling in his head. The mask was one of his first attempts at expressing what he felt on the inside.

Michael was born in Bethel, but adopted by a white Eagle River family as an infant. He had a knack for art starting at a young age. His mother told him that even at age 3, his drawings had perspective and depth -- beyond flat, one-dimensional pictures.

While music and ballet lessons shaped his early art education, none of it had much to do with his Alaska Native background.

“I didn't know what it meant to be Native. (Growing up) I just saw a lot of drunks on the street,” he says.

So as a teenager, under the encouragement of his father, Michael took a mask carving class with Anchorage artist Joe Senungetuk, who taught him the basics -- about forms, tools and “how to be safe” -- and gave him the spark he needed to not only begin a mask-making career, but to explore his Native heritage.

Three stages of growth

From there, Michael learned from others, including Athabascan carver Kathleen Carlo.

Carlo, who lives in Fairbanks, was touched when she saw his work recently. She noticed some of her own influence (Carlo is known for incorporating metal into her masks), but she added that Michael seems to be finding his own voice.

“I think he's developed his own style,” Carlo says. “He's a serious artist.”

Michael says his work is divided into three stages. The first is from 1997 to 2002, when he first learned how to make masks. At his East Anchorage home, he showed off one of those masks. It's untitled and plain, tucked away high on a wall in his kitchen. While the mask is smooth and finished, its simplistic design doesn't leave much room for whimsy.

“I felt like I had to follow some rules,” he says. “But I realized I don't need to follow certain rules or expectations.”

Stage two started in 2002, when he started to find his power as an artist. He says there was no single event or change, just that his perspective changed, allowing him to find his voice as an artist.

The third phase, the one he's in now, started in 2010 when he quit his job to focus solely on art. Now, he's moving toward distorting mask forms and playing with arrangements.

It's Michael's distinct perspective that has others taking note. Philip Blanchett, co-founder of the Yup'ik band Pamyua, noticed it early on. “There was something about what he was doing that was connecting the old way of communicating through masks, but it was through his own voice and very personal,” he says. “It was just really something I had rarely seen in the Yup'ik style masks I've seen over the years.”

Blanchett commissioned Michael to create several pieces for Pamyua's live performances; a mask used on the cover of their latest album, “Side A/Side B” and a pair of long, extended hands.

'Much freer interpretation'

“There is a really clear story of what his pieces are,” Blanchett says. “He's not making fluff pieces, he's not just making something that he's seen before.”

Da-ka-xeen Mehner agrees. The Fairbanks-based artist and director of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Native Arts Center is a self-proclaimed Drew Michael fan.

In Yup'ik mask-making, there "became this element of no longer making new styles of masks -- just copying of older styles,” he says. “What I see in his work is he's going back to a much freer interpretation.”

Michael has found himself in an unlikely role lately: leader. Earlier this year, he received a $5,000 grant from the Rasmuson Foundation. He's using it to build a larger workshop in his backyard so he can teach classes and work on larger installations.

Recently, he and a group of fellow Native artists came together to create “Diaspora,” a group dedicated to the professional development of Alaska Native artists through micro grants and community art installations. He recently gave a talk at the Elders and Youth Conference preceding the Alaska Federation of Natives convention, encouraging young people to pursue their creativity.

Blanchett is inspired by Michael's work as a leader. “He would always mention that he has these ideas and passion and was inspired to do things for other people and for other artists, and I was like 'OK, I hope you know what you're getting yourself into,'” Blanchett says. “But he is, and he's taking a lead. He's not doing it for the credit. It's to work together and create a community, to do something good.”

Michael says when he was adopted, his biological grandmother, Julia Westdahl, told his parents if they raised him right, he'd “come back as a leader.” It's a directive he's taken to heart.

“It fulfills the direction my grandmother wanted me to live,” he says. “I want to be an encouragement no matter what.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com