In N. Y., north­ern ex­po­sure

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - The Fourth Page -

Alaska’s na­tive cul­ture, art a hit in the Big Ap­ple; Palin’s rise spurs in­ter­est

NEW YORK n the mar­ket for a bas­ket wo­ven from seal in­testines? How about a pouch fash­ioned from a moose blad­der and dec­o­rated with shells? Or a statue of a musk ox carved from a woolly- mam­moth tooth?

If so, you can go to Alaska— or visit the newly opened Alaska House, New York, where the work of more than 200 Alaskan Na­tive artists is on dis­play.

For Alaska House, the se­lec­tion of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as the Repub­li­can party’s vice pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee was for­tu­itous: It has sparked a sud­den in­ter­est in all things Alaskan.

“ Her rise in stature has cer­tainly put Alaska on the map, and that’s what we’re try­ing to do,” said Tracey Foster, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the non­profit art and cul­tural cen­ter that opened in the city’s artsy SoHo district in Septem­ber.

Most Amer­i­cans know lit­tle about the state be­yond snow and po­lar bears. And they know even less about the rich tra­di­tion of in­dige­nous art that of­ten finds ex­pres­sion in the re­mote and poor vil­lages where many Alaska Na­tives live.

Housed in an airy 3,200- square- foot du­plex, Alaska House aims not only to high­light en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues chal­leng­ing the state but also to as­sist ru­ral eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment by bring­ing Alaska Na­tive art to a Lower 48 mar­ket, which oth­er­wise might never ex­pe­ri­ence it.

Artists will re­ceive about half the pro­ceeds from sales, with the bal­ance go­ing to the Alaska Na­tive Arts Foun­da­tion in An­chor­age, ac­cord­ing to Jean Carlo, the se­nior cu­ra­to­rial con­sul­tant for Alaska House, who has lived in the state for 30 years.

Ex­cept for vis­i­tors who pass through ru­ral vil­lages dur­ing the an­nual

Irun­ning of the 1,150- mile Idi­tarod Trail Sled Dog Race from An­chor­age to Nome, Alaska Na­tives have few cus­tomers for their art.

“ They have no mar­ket,” said phi­lan­thropist Alice Ro­goff, founder of Alaska House, New York and the na­tive arts foun­da­tion.

A Har­vard Busi­ness School grad­u­ate and for­mer chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer at U. S. News & World Re­port, Ro­goff fell in love with Alaska, its na­tive peo­ple and their art dur­ing a 2002 trip through the state’s most re­mote re­gions.

Started later that year, the arts foun­da­tion in An­chor­age, where Ro­goff has a home, rep­re­sents nearly 1,000 artists, many of whom re­ceive grants through a part­ner­ship with the Ford Foun­da­tion, she said.

To in­crease their na­tional ex­po­sure, Alaska House was born. “ If you can’t have enough space to show the art in con­text, with ed­u­ca­tional pro­grams to back it up, all you’re do­ing is sell­ing art that doesn’t mean any­thing ex­cept vis­ually,” Ro­goff said.

Na­tive art speaks elo­quently about the lives of the peo­ple and their re­la­tion­ship to a starkly beau­ti­ful land, where the per­mafrost is thaw­ing be­neath their homes and their hunt­ing grounds for wal­rus and seal are drift­ing far­ther away as the ice melts.

At first glance, the gallery, bristling with works in fur, skins, ivory and feathers by some 200 artists, could be the stuff of night­mares for an­i­mal- rights ac­tivists.

There is an Eskimo doll, with del­i­cately carved wal­rus ivory face and hands, dressed in tra­di­tional cloth­ing of seal­skin and rab­bit, priced about $ 3,600. There are bas­kets wo­ven from baleen, the sieve- like fibers in­side the mouth of a whale, topped with wal­rus ivory finials in the shape of po­lar bear heads, rang­ing from $ 1,000 to $ 4,000. There are moose­hide slip­pers for $ 400. And there is a wa­ter­proof bag, fash­ioned from the peri­cardium sac of a moose, trimmed in shells, for $ 1,000.

But Carlo pointed out that Alaska Na­tives hunt and fish for sub­sis­tence, honor the spirit of the an­i­mal and use ev­ery part of it.

“ You never throw any­thing out,” she said.


Se­nior cu­ra­to­rial con­sul­tant Jean Carlo dis­plays a jacket at AlaskaHouse, New York. Much of the na­tive art in­cor­po­rates­ma­te­rial such aswal­rus tusk, moose hide, whale­bone, fish scales, feathers and furs.

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