Alaska News

Fish skin artists share their skills at Smithsonian Center

Salmon skin can be tougher than Gore-Tex or as soft as velvet. And everything you need to transform the scaly hide into a workable piece of clothing or art material can be found in your kitchen -- as three Alaska Native women are showing this week at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in the Anchorage Museum.

The common practice among fishermen is, sooner or later, to throw away the skin. But when someone brings a fresh catch into the Yup'ik village of Kokhanok, where Marlene Nielsen lives, her first question is, "What are you going to do with the skins?"

"I clean the skins off. They can take the meat," she said. In her hands, the skins turn into jewelry, containers or art.

The rugged, waterproof skin was traditionally used for storage or clothing. But knowledge of how to work with the material waned after the introduction of commercial fabric. Modern fish-skin sewers have largely had to rediscover the skills.

Nielsen's acquaintance with fish-skin art came when, as a girl, she saw masks made from it. Later, she met an old woman in Nondalton, on the north side of Lake Iliamna from Kokhanok, who made fish-skin earrings.

"I wanted to do a garment," Nielsen said. "A parka or mukluks. Fish skins were our rain-gear."

Nielsen works with trout, Dolly Varden char and salmon -- even spawned-out salmon, whose brick-red skin can remain durable even when the meat is no longer fit to eat. She said she prepares the skins the same way she would a moose hide. "I just dry and scrape the skins with a knife," she said. Then she applies oil or other chemicals to keep the skin pliable.


But there's more than one way to skin a fish, or at least more than one way to prepare a fish skin.

Coral Chernoff also starts by peeling the fish and scraping off all the meat and fat with tools she's made herself. "I like to do everything from the ground up," she said.

But then she washes the skin in a Mason jar containing a solution of Dawn detergent and water. She sloshes the jar around from time to time over the course of several days. "You know by feel when the oil is gone," she said.

She soaks the clean skin in a tannic solution made from brains and water. Then the real work starts, constant pulling, twisting, massaging, kneading and stretching of the skin as it dries. It can take 10 hours of manipulation before a large skin is fully dried. But once finished it has the tender texture of fine suede.

"I love to work with king salmon because it's sooo soft," she said.

Chernoff, of Kodiak, said she avidly prepares and tans the hides of anything she can find, including deer, otter and sea lion. "I had to buy a second freezer just to store it all," she said.

She treats fish skin much like any other animal skin but pays special attention to keeping it fresh. "If you're not going to work with it right away, put it in the freezer," she said. "If you need to set it aside for a little while, put it in the refrigerator. You never want it to smell like anything."

Like Nielsen, Chernoff has learned much of what she knows by trial and error, reading, study and experimenting. One of her recent happy experiments has been using commercial dyes that turn the natural skin color into a flashy, fashionable red.

Lately she's been looking into ways to tan the skin of smoked salmon. "I don't know anyone who's done it, but I've read about it and it makes a lot of sense."

Unlike the other two women at the Smithsonian event, award-winning artist Audrey Armstrong -- originally from Galena and Nulato -- did have a teacher, the late Fran Reed.

Reed was a non-Native who gained a national reputation for contemporary art baskets made from fish skin. During a final illness, she asked Armstrong to take over teaching her classes. One of the items Armstrong brought with her is an ornamental wall hanging titled "Fran's Embodiment," a tribute to her mentor adorned by a feather, shells, polished stones and a heart of beads.

Beads can be a chore, Armstrong said. She showed a hair clasp featuring a thickly beaded eagle. "This is one of my experiments," she said. The salmon skin was too tough to sew. She had to punch a separate hole for each bead, she said. "But you know we Athabaskans love our beadwork."

Durability made fish skin practical to earlier generations.

"King salmon skin is so strong that I've actually made usable berry baskets out of it," Armstrong said. "It really holds its shape."

Her usual approach is to sew the skins while still wet and let them harden into their final and permanent design.

"But I'm willing to learn something new," she said. "I just learned about the Dawn from Coral today. What's interesting is that we all have different styles."

"I'm getting all kinds of ideas to bring back home," Nielsen said. "I want to try the brain cure."


The fish stitchers aren't the only ones getting an education this week. Their sessions are being observed -- in some cases by video teleconference -- with students, curators and conservators from various institutions.

Fish-skin artifacts from Japan to the Pacific Northwest are found in museums, said Aron Crowell, the director of the Arctic Studies Center's Alaska office. "The whole North Pacific is linked by salmon," he said. "The conservators are interested in how you take care of them, how you preserve these objects. We've already discovered that even the old ones can get wet and they'll be all right."

The women gleefully exchanged tips with each other, museum visitors and school children on Tuesday morning. They all enjoy sharing their knowledge, Armstrong said, but they also revel in what they do.

"It's so much fun," she said. "It gives you so much pleasure."

Chernoff, busily flexing a skin with her fingers as she spoke, agreed. "I never get tired of it," she said. "At least not yet."


Mike Dunham

Mike Dunham has been a reporter and editor at the ADN since 1994, mainly writing about culture, arts and Alaska history. He worked in radio for 20 years before switching to print.