Mask Carver Puts an Urban Twist on Alaska Native Tradition

Anchorage is sometimes called Alaska’s largest Native village because it’s home to so many Alaska Natives. Drew Michael is one of them. And he’s exploring his urban Native identity through his art. The mask carver is part of a generation of Alaska Native artists who are blurring the lines between traditional and contemporary art.

Combing hardware stores and junkyards for materials to decorate his masks like wire, plastic, glass and fiber is something Mask Carver Drew Michael calls, urban subsistence. One of the places he searches for materials is Fred Meyer, near his home in East Anchorage. Today he’s searching for something unusual to decorate a mask he’s working on.

"Falling Out" Photo courtesy of Drew Michael

“So here we are. We’re in the aisle that I’m looking for and it’s called a wash mitt. And they have all these protrusions they look like larva, all over this glove,” Michael said.

Michael brings the mitt meant for washing cars back to a spare room in his home – a small ranch-style house in East Anchorage – which doubles as his studio. In the middle of the wood chip strewn floor is a work bench where he chisels blocks of wood into faces.

“So, here we go; if you have your tools sharp enough it’ll cut like butter,” he said.

The 28-year-old has been carving masks since he was in his early teens.  Michael, who is Yup’ik and Inupiaq, was adopted by a couple teaching school in Bethel, along with his twin brother when he was around a year old. At 13, he took a carving class at University of Alaska Anchorage, to connect with his roots.  And he’s been carving ever since. In 2008 the Alaska Native Heritage Center purchased one of his masks, and he recently won a Rasmuson Foundation Grant to pursue his work. His masks allude to his training with more traditional carvers like Joe Senungetuk and Kathleen Carlo but they also reflect his urban environment.

“I like to connect to traditional style, but not necessarily copy it. My work, I use different material. I use power tools; I mean some people think that’s not okay to be doing. I think it’s fine. I know how to do things a more traditional way, using just hand tools. But if I can cut out a lot of time and also the wear on my own body, why not,” Michael said.

The masks are sometimes stark and understated, other times startling caricatures. Traditional masks are decorated with feathers or stained with berries. Michael uses his junkyard and Hardware store finds like wire, glass or textiles to decorate his masks. He says the main stories his masks tell are his own. He points to a piece named ‘Escape’ that hangs on the wall of his home.

“A lot of my early pieces tell a story about feeling trapped, isolated, maybe feeling like I wanted to get out of a situation in my life. Like this piece down here, if you’re looking at it, it has hands, these metal hands coming out of the eyes kind of representing me trapped within a cage or a prison, trying to get out, like looking out the window,” Michael said.

Michael says he made the mask in 2010 while he was working in the oil fields on the North Slope. He says it was a difficult time. He really wanted to be making art, but had to earn money to pay off student loans. He quit the oil fields job about a year ago to pursue carving full-time. In the Alaska Native tradition, masks are destroyed by fire after they are used in a ceremony. Instead of burning his masks up, Michael leaves his carving marks, gently scorching the surface of the wood with a propane torch to add texture and definition.

“Got the flame. It’s changing the wood color pretty quickly. Pretty quick on the nose. Darken the nose up,” he said.

Michael says growing up he did not want to be Native.

“The Native people that I saw when I was growing up were the Natives on the streets. I didn’t want to be Native because I didn’t want to be associated with that,” he said.

But through his art he says he realized that he could begin to define what it meant to be an urban Alaska Native.

“Soon after that I got into the carving. And through the carving I’ve learned more and more about my identity as an Alaska Native. And I’ve become more and more proud of it. And now I’ve even become kind of of a leader,” Michael said.

That car cleaning mitt he bought at Fred Meyer — he’s spray painted it in gold silver and bronze and now he’s cutting it apart and attaching it to a cedar mask he’s been working on, with a staple gun.

“So what do we have here? A mask that has a larger face on the bottom. And then on the left brow it gets stretched up into another face that’s attached to the head on the left side. And on the top is that material that was the glove that we had spray painted. And it creates this hairline that looks really interesting like a sea anemone,” Michael said.

The name of his new mask? Without seeing.

“I think what’s really exciting about what’s happening now is Native people are getting a stronger voice. Their proud of who they are. The past has a lot of sadness and pain in it, but I think now the culture, the language and the community is actually being celebrated,” he said.

Michael says he’ll use the $5,000 Rasmuson grant he just received to build a new studio beside his house. That’s where he will soon begin teaching mask-carving, and where he hopes to keep the Alaska Native traditions alive, with an urban twist.

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Daysha Eaton, KMXT - Kodiak
Daysha Eaton is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.