On a recent chilly morning, artist Drew 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.”
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 Senugetuk, 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.