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Point Hope artist carves path to ancient past

  • Author: Jill Burke
  • Updated: June 30, 2016
  • Published October 4, 2009
Jill Burke photo
Ceremonial Dance Mask by master carver Othniel Oomittuk Jr. of Point Hope.

Midway through preparing for a trip to Princeton, N.J., mask maker Othniel "Art" Oomittuk answered the door at his small home studio wearing a head lamp and dust mask, his long dark hair pulled into a bun. In short time the ritual would repeat itself with more knocks at the door until his small, stark home was nearly full with visitors: a reporter, a visiting teacher from Scotland, a biology teacher from Oregon who is new to the school at Point Hope, and a neighbor and fellow artist popping in to return borrowed movies.

Oomittuk was getting ready to travel to Princeton University, where he would be one of nearly two dozen Alaska artists on hand to help launch two exhibits featuring works from the arctic. Tools and raw materials spanned the living room floor, while finished pieces and works in progress, like hunting spears, snow goggles, a carved polar bear and seal, and ivory rings lined a narrow wall shelf. Oomittuk offered hot tea as his guests settled in.

“Gifts from the Ancestors: Ancient Ivories of Bering Strait” runs through Jan. 10, 2010 and “Dry Ice: Alaska Native Artists and the Landscape” runs through Nov. 21, 2009 at the Princeton University Art Museum in Princeton, N.J. More information about both exhibits is available at the museum's Web site.

Angus Grant, a teacher of art and design in Scotland who was in Point Hope for an educational exchange program, shares Oomittuk's passion for carving. The former jeweler turned school teacher is himself a bone carver, although materials like those used by Oomittuk -- whale bone, baleen, ivory -- aren't available to him. Instead, Grant simulates those materials with molded acrylic. He studied ivory carving in India and has had a chance to view bone carving in New Zealand, yet for him Oomittuk's work, as well as the work of other Alaskan artists, stands out.

"To compare it to the ivory carving that has gone on and can't go on in India anymore, and to be able to see contemporary ivory carving made to such a wonderful standard, is really something very special to me," Grant said.

Oomittuk's skill as an artist, passion for his culture and willingness to share both openly are the reasons he was selected to participate in Princeton's exhibition, said Angela Demma, curator with the Alaska Native Arts Foundation. ANF collaborated on the event alongside the Arts Council of Princeton and the Princeton University Art Museum.

Jill Burke photo
Master Carver Othniel Oomittuk Jr.

While at Princeton, Oomittuk will demonstrate ivory carving, as well as carve a block of Port Orford cedar into a human face using knives, chisels and sand paper. Other than occasionally looking in to a mirror to work on an expression or the shape of the mouth, Oomittuk never begins a project with an image in mind. But he said he hopes when it's done that it's a familiar, if distant, face.

Oomittuk started carving masks in 1997. Before that he'd been a painter and a photographer, but never a mask maker -- until he was asked to create a single piece for a show in Oregon called "Faces of the Arctic." He'd long left his home in Alaska for college and a life outside, but something about that project and his Alaskan roots started pulling at him with increased strength.

"When I was carving I felt like I was back with my ancestors," he said.

The feeling grew even stronger as Oomittuk began to surround himself with finished pieces.

"I would hang them up around me and I felt the energy from them," he said.

Often, those echoes to the past evolve into real-life resemblances, as with a dance mask he created. Only recently did he discover that it looks like a shaman with whom he shares a name. Long, bushy white eyebrows and a mustache made of polar bear hair spring forward from the mask, and it's those distinct features that helped Oomittuk realize the connection.

Jill Burke photo
Wood prepared for carving sits next to a nearly finished mask in Oomittuk's Point Hope workshop.

While browsing the pages of a newly released history book on the people of Point Hope, "Ultimate Americans," he found a black and white photo he couldn't ignore. It contained a picture of the shaman that Oomittuk hadn't seen before, and in it he discovered the similarities -- giant bushy eyebrows shared by man and mask. When Oomittuk's art reveals these kinds of unexpected, but tangible, connections to his heritage, he said, it fuels his passion.

"It makes me want to create more so that our history, our culture can be perpetuated through the arts," he said. "Every culture has their own story and ours has been told by other people, not by us."

Oomittuk has lived in Hawaii and Japan, but returned home to Point Hope a few years ago to continue his work and the artistic traditions of his ancestors.

"Gifts from the Ancestors: Ancient Ivories of Bering Strait," which runs through Jan. 10, 2010, showcases the work of two millennia of hunters from the Bering Strait and features ancient ivory carvings and other pieces from both America and Russia.


Bruce M. White photo/Princeton University
An ancient walrus ivory harpoon counterweight from a New York collection will be on display with other artifacts in "Gifts from the Ancestors: Ancient Ivories of Bering Strait" through Jan. 10, 2010 at the Princeton University Art Museum.

"Through these ornamented harpoons and hunting implements we begin to understand the connections between art, technology, and spiritual beliefs that have been central to the lives of hunting peoples for thousands of years," said William W. Fitzhugh, a guest co-curator of the exhibit from the Smithsonian Institute. Contemporary artists, including the work of St. Lawrence Islander Susie Silook, are also included.

A companion exhibit, "Dry Ice: Alaska Native Artists and the Landscape," will be on view through Nov. 21, 2009. The title "is meant to evoke the shifting significance of the Alaskan polar landscape in contemporary Native art," Demma said. "Given the central place of Alaska and its landscape in recent national debates surrounding the environment and the oil crisis, the subject of this exhibition is both timely and important to present outside of Alaska."

"Dry Ice" features work from nine Alaska Native artists, including Brian Adams, Susie Bevins-Ericsen, Perry Eaton, Nicholas Galanin, Anna Hoover, Sonya Kelliher-Combs, Erica Lord, Da-ka-xeen Mehner, and Larry McNeil.

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