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Bethel Artists To Learn About Fish Skins

By | January 8, 2014

There aren’t a lot of luxury items that come out of southwest Alaska. But there is group of artists working with a product that Alaskans know quite well, if they’ve ever put away fish. Local artists have a chance to learn to work with fish skin and bring it to new audiences and customers.

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Fish skin has a long history in Alaska, but you probably haven’t seen it in garment or gallery form for a while. Fish skin disappeared with the introduction of other types of fabrics like cotton and Gore-Tex. But you should keep an eye out:

“Fish skin is really hot right now as a medium, mainly in Iceland, it’s become a type of fashion. People are creating garments and spiky three inch heels, and handbags, as well home decor like wallpaper.”

That’s Trina Landlord, the executive director of the Alaska Native Arts Foundation, a nonprofit that works to build markets for Alaska Native arts. She points to renewed interest in the material in Alaska. It makes sense. Fish skins are abundant and they’re often just thrown away. It makes for a strong and workable material with beautiful scales and the durability of leather. More and more artists have been taking up the medium, and locally, artists have requested training opportunities.

The group is putting on a week-long workshop in Bethel in February. It will be taught by Marlene Nielson, who is Yupik from the Iliamna area, and Joel Isaak who is an Athabascan artist. Alaska’s a natural place for fish skin innovation, and Landlord says people are beginning to notice.

“People are starting to revive that material. They’re dying it, they’re creating halter dresses and corsets. We’re taking that sort of international flare and honing it and bringing it home to Alaska,” said Landlord.

The class will help artists to learn both to work with the material, and to make a business of it.

“To help artists and to really build skills to market themselves, also develop biz skill and build on the foundation of their culture in able to be able to promote themselves as entrepreneurs in their art form,” said Landlord.

The group is looking for artists who are enthusiastic about opportunity and willing to share that knowledge with others. Partners include the Alaska State Council On Arts, the Cultural Center, and UAF. The application for the course is available  online.

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