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VIDEO: Alaska artist Joel Isaak, fish skin designer

Tara Young

Joel Isaak’s latest medium might surprise you. The Athabascan artist and fashion designer’s most recent work is a collection of pieces made with fish skin leather.

The designs debuted at the "Wear Art, Thou?" fashion show last week, an event put on by the Alaska Native Arts Foundation to help showcase work by Alaska Native artists, and to "bridge the gap between the art world, the Native art world, and people in general," according to Isaak. "Wear Art, Thou?" was held in tandem with the Alaska Native Visionary Awards, and Isaak, with his innovative spin on traditional native techniques, was among those honored. The awards recognize “people who pass along knowledge, or document traditional ways of learning and process, to a current audience.” Isaak, whose recent pieces draw inspiration from the stylings of the European Renaissance while utilizing traditional Athabascan fish leather techniques, fits that bill. 

The acidity of Interior Alaska soils speeds decay of the garments, and few, if any, examples of them still exist. The Anchorage Museum and Arctic Studies Center have several examples utilizing other materials. Isaak's education in making fish skin leather in traditional Dena’ina methods was through books and experimentation. At one point an elder, who made fish skin leather when she was a young girl, confirmed that Isaak was doing it the correct way. After three years of practice making the material, Isaak is somewhat of a master, and one of the leaders -- along with Helen Dick and Audrey Armstrong -- in sparking a renewed interest in fish leather items, which are a real trend at the moment.

“Fish skin techniques are universal throughout the world,” Isaak says. “Anywhere there is salmon there's a salmon clothing tradition. So you go to Russia, Finland, Denmark, the UK, Chili, Argentina, China they all have a tradition of salmon skin clothing that was worn.” And Isaak's experience means he has a message for younger generations: “Elders do want to share their knowledge with you, but they want to be asked... As long as you’re being respectful, most people are open to talking to you.”

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Contact Alaska Dispatch videographer Tara Young at tara(at)alaskadispatch.com.