Savoonga is a small village (population 670) on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, considered the remaining non-submerged portion of the land bridge that once connected Asia and North America in the prehistoric era. As their ancestors did thousands of years ago, residents rely on subsistence hunting and gathering. Creating and selling traditional art helps many residents bring in money for fuel and utilities.
Artist Jason Iya was born in Nome and raised in Savoonga. He learned how to practice subsistence, gather materials and carve walrus ivory from his father and the other carvers in his village. Iya was encouraged to pursue his art, which he did with vigor. After mastering carving in Savoonga, Iya spent years trying to navigate the art world in Anchorage, only to return to Savoonga to live a traditional lifestyle. He hunts, carves and digs for prehistoric materials to use in his work and to sell.
Iya creates what he calls transformation art -- animals and humans turning into one another, a spiritual anthropomorphism in motion. He was influenced by the prehistoric dolls he’s read about. The Eskimos of the Okvik period (from A.D. 1 to 700) created objects that related to the Arctic sea mammal hunting lifestyle. Iya says he was most influenced by dolls that portray different emotions and states of being -- “sadness, death, movement, Godly spiritual-cultural connection.”
Iya says his work travels one big step from his ancestors. He uses modern tools such as power buffers, whereas his ancestors carved everything by hand. Still, there is a stylistic and thematic connection that Iya feels whenever he’s making art.
The market for Alaska Native artwork has changed. While demand is growing -- and many Alaska galleries sell the work -- artists are trying to reach venues and markets outside the state. The Internet is a powerful tool that can help rural Alaska artists reach a new audience. Connectivity in rural villages is still an issue. Weather can shut down communications and prevent planes from landing, which affects the ability to ship items in a timely fashion. But as Internet access improves, the hope is that rural Alaska Native artists will reach new collectors and maintain their way of life while improving their livelihoods.