Sparking Creativity: Native Mask Carver Drew MichaelPosted: July 6, 2012
Drew: My mother saw my creative spirit at an early age and encouraged my father to enroll with me in a carving class at University of Anchorage Alaska (UAA) in 1997 when I was 14. We had the great opportunity to learn from an Inupiaq master carver, Joe Senunegtuk, and tool maker Bob Shaw. I learned a great deal about form and design from Joe. This opportunity opened my eyes to the significance of my Native heritage. This launched my career as a mask carver.
What is the relationship between tradition and innovation in your carvings?
Native culture is so focused on tradition. I have learned a great deal about the importance of learning and protecting the origins of cultural expression through language, art, dance, and social construction of communities. My work blends traditional and contemporary design and use of Inupiaq and Yupik masks. Becoming a mask carver has been a process of looking at pieces made by masters of many eras. I have looked at many pieces and learned their uses and materials used in construction.
Typically older pieces have been carved with hand tools such as bent knives and small drills held in the mouth and hands. The pieces are created using drift wood and organic materials such as feathers, bone, ivory, and natural pigments found in berries and earthen materials. My work is a fusion of these more organic materials and things collected in the urban environment. I collect materials at local stores and junk yards, or from friends who have found objects that are no longer useful to them.
Traditionally, masks were created as a vehicle for sending prayer into the universe and the spirits. The masks were a synthesis of animal and human spirits being equally important; almost being one and the same. Typically the forms represented would be animals with human faces in the center representing the spirits of the animals and the humans showing the relationship and the respect of our connection to the environment. After a piece was danced, it was often burned to send the prayer out and finalize the ceremony.
My work takes these principles and applies them to my perspective within this era of my people. I create pieces that express ideas and emotions that represent today’s culture in Anchorage , the state of Alaska , and America during my life time. I carry the traditional act of burning my pieces by scorching the surface with a torch. It is important to create work that is both aesthetically pleasing and useful. I often incorporate mouth pieces inside of my masks so that they can be danced. This keeps the traditional function of masks alive for this generation.
When someone approaches my work I would like the piece to become an experience. A mask is more then a construction of facial parts arranged to express an emotion. These pieces of art are meant to be worn and used as tools to tell stories and express personalities. The masks I create are a connection with ancient perspectives and expose people to the culture of Alaska’s Native people.
I start my work with a sketch. Typically they focus on ideas or emotions that I am working through. I experiment with a range of materials and design elements. Each piece has a main point that is being expressed through the main form and as I work on each aspect the materials I choose to use for decoration may change. I have only done a couple pieces where I allowed the wood and materials to tell their own story. My work is created mainly with the guide of a sketch.
Artistic expression is a door to the unseen world. In the last couple of years I have become more aware of the mystery of the unseen energies and spirits around me. As I heighten my awareness of these forces, I find that I document and share what I have seen through my carving. The act of carving is a release of energy and ideas that allows me to do a sort of self therapy. I have worked through many aspects of my own identity and spiritual development as a carver.
Within Native culture, masks play a pivotal role expressing the unseen spiritual community. I have been able to take this art form and express values that are current.
The best way to hone a craft of any kind, in my perspective, is to practice and make mistakes. I have learned so many tricks through mistakes. Trial and error has been such a useful tool for creation. It opens my mind to doing things in new ways. If someone is interested in doing something new I suggest talking to someone with experience, But also taking a risk and trying it. This is ok as long as it doesn’t involve hurting yourself or others. This is the best way to learn how to do anything.
I am on a journey of self discovery and my creative expression has opened the door to my culture and identity. I have learned the importance of the connection of a person with the environment, the community, and spiritual world around me. I was so scared and fought so many aspects of the world but have been able to let go and accept who I am and things I could not change through my art form.
If one was to look at my work there would be a clear line between the fear and pain and the hope and joy that is expressed in my work.
I have learned how to be alive through my art.