Arts and Entertainment

On a tundra brimming with boots and coats, Bethel photographer Katie Basile captures creative fashion in Native earring designs

Bethel photographer Katie Basile has tackled a number of subjects from around the world: from the health care system in South Sudan to New York City bike messengers.

Her latest project focuses on a group of artists from her backyard: earring makers of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Basile profiled nine different artists, photographing both the artist in portrait form and their work, while adding context from videoed interviews. While she generally focuses on more documentary-style photojournalism, Basile said she’s always had an interest in fashion and studio photography.

Funded by the Alaska Humanities Forum, she partnered with the Southwest Alaska Arts Group for the project, which will be exhibited Friday at the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center in Bethel starting at 5 p.m. The show will include publication of a 24-page lookbook, featuring each artist and their work. We talked to Basile about the project, the explosion of earring creation among Indigenous artists in the state and how she balances assignments.

The following Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Anchorage Daily News: What was the evolution of this project?

Basile: I’ve been wanting to do a project on earring artists and earrings and I think in Bethel in particular, with the weather the way it is, there’s not a lot of room for creative fashion. I’m sure some people would argue with me but for me personally, earrings are an expression of fashion when you pretty much have to have boots and a big coat on all the time. And so that was all kind of part of the inspiration.

ADN: I’m sure you approach each assignment differently, but what was the challenge with this one in trying to capture both the art and the artist?


Basile: There were times where I was wishing I was in their workspace, photographing them at work with all their raw materials. There’s sort of that documentarian in me that wanted to be doing that. But I think in the end, I really just wanted an elevated feature of each artist and then their earrings. I knew that I’d have to do kind of a diptych or triptych with multiple photographs to really show them wearing the earring, but then also give a detail shot of the earring as well so you can really get a close-up.

ADN: I’ve noticed a recent explosion of earring makers, especially Native artists. Did your project address that growth?

Basile: Pretty much everybody reflected on the pandemic and how that was a time where they were home with not a lot going on and so that they were able to focus on a craft. I think that’s kind of a national or probably international phenomena. And so out here and I think probably across the state, a lot of people were focused on making earrings and making jewelry. Then you throw in the way social media has become such a platform for sales for artists, and that’s kind of a perfect combination for that explosion that I think we’ve all seen.

ADN: Was there a style or point of view in these pieces that was unique to Western Alaska?

Basile: A lot of the artists were using materials that come from the land and water out here. So you might see caribou antler or ivory or fish vertebrae. I think even if the materials aren’t drawn directly from the land sometimes the color patterns really reflect the skies that we have out here or the tundra. In general, I see like a lot of beaded fringe earrings, which across a lot of different Native communities is a very popular style. But yeah, out here I see a lot of work that reflects the land and the water where we live.

ADN: You’ve done a lot of varied projects this year, most recently a story centered on the effects of climate change in Kasigluk. What was the transition like from working on those different assignments?

Basile: One thing I’ve struggled with is finding my style or my sort of niche, I guess. But I think what it comes down to is I really focus on Alaskan and specifically Southwest Alaskan stories. And I think it’s really important to highlight all the issues that we’re facing, including climate change. But at the same time, I feel like every time I do a story about something that kind of makes me sad, I guess like climate change, I want to also highlight something that I’m celebrating in the community out here. And so that’s where kind of the earring artists come in. So for me, it’s about finding balance and making sure that region is accurately represented so that we are seeing both the good and the difficult things that we face.

Chris Bieri

Chris Bieri is the sports and entertainment editor at the Anchorage Daily News.