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Photos: Skin deep -- art from fish skin

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
"Healing Place" by Joel Isaak. Cast bronze mask sewn together with salmon skin.
Alaska Native Arts Foundation
Shehla Anjum | First Alaskans

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.

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