ALASKA NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE PROJECT
Artist in Residence: US Fish and Wildlife Service
I began working as an artist in residence with US Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska in 2016. That year I visited the southern portion of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Gwich’in people of Arctic Village. Since that summer, I have returned to complete projects throughout Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuge System – there are 16 Refuges total. I spend time in the wilderness learning about the land and animals and lead community service projects, art workshops, and murals in the Native villages. The resulting artwork is an ode to the way the people have been living in harmony with the wilderness for thousands of years and the interconnection that exists between all life forms in these precious public lands.
Yukon Flats and Togiak National Wildlife Refuges 2018
The first expedition of the summer was to Yukon Flats NWR by boat down the Yukon River from Circle to Fort Yukon, then Beaver, then out at the bridge. The week long journey brought us into the lives of the Gwich’in, Yup’ik, and Inupiaq people and in flow with one of the most powerful, wild and fertile rivers in the North. It was from these waters that I tasted the best salmon of my life – Yukon King, or better yet Yukon Gold – it melted on my tongue and delivered nutrients, omegas, and fat for fuel. It was at the connection of the Porcupine River and the Yukon where I met the most amazing woman – Julie Mahler – who had spent 40 years of her life raising her family on a homestead far away from even the most remote village, tucked into the tundra and fed by the river.
A flight to Anchorage and then to the coast brought me to Dillingham, where I got my first taste of what it’s like to be a village swarmed with commercial fishing. I flew out to Togiak from there, and experienced the constant hum of boat engines as the Yup’ik people of the village picked their set nets for salmon. It was a record year for sockeye salmon in the Bristol Bay area, and everyone was excited and eager. And yet the task comes with risk and danger. All was present in the swirl of Togiak. A helicopter ride thanks to USFWS into the Refuge sent me waist deep in river water flowing thick with spawned out chum salmon and surrounded by feasting bears, gulls, eagles and ravens. I ended my stay in Togiak by painting a mural on the Traditional Council’s storage container, all the while monitoring packs of children with loaded paintbrushes.
The artwork produced from these trips belongs to Fish and Wildlife to utilize for education, outreach, and relations. I hope what I share with you seeds a deep love for wilderness, a respect for traditional ways of life, and a desire to take care of the environments we live in with every step we take.
Julie Mahler, Fort Yukon
Clara Joseph, Beaver
Final Commission for US Fish and Wildlife Service, Fairbanks
Featuring: Julie Mahler of Ft. Yukon and Clara Joseph of Beaver
The Yukon River flows 1,982 miles from Canadian mountain glaciers, across Alaska, and into the Bering Sea. A churning river of chocolate-colored silt, it sprawls across the land in braided tributaries and channels. This is the highway for the life-giving kin of this land – the salmon. The salmon create a vibrant cycle of life that is joined by moose, caribou, wolves, bear, and thousands of migratory birds that flock to the wetland ponds and lakes that pockmark the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge.
Born from this wilderness of water and boreal forest are Julie Mahler of Fort Yukon and Clara Joseph of Beaver. Molded by the river’s lessons for decades, these Gwich’in women carry the rhythm of the river under their skin, and their eyes and smiles tell stories of winter freezes, spring break-ups, and summer abundance. The Yukon provides life for the Gwich’in and calls to the wild-at-heart, who come from around the world to canoe, kayak, boat, fish and learn from the tremendous river that prevails across the Yukon Flats.
Linda Kirby, Togiak
Final Commission for US Fish and Wildlife Service, Dillingham
“Made of This”
Featuring: Elsie Abraham, Aubrey Gosuk, and Skylar Wassillie of Togiak
It’s salmon season in Togiak Village, and everyone’s on the water. Home to people of Yup’ik Eskimo heritage, it is nestled in Togiak Bay, with Togiak National Wildlife Refuge spilling for 4.7 million acres behind it. In this expansive wilderness, the Ahklun Mountains give way to tundra and willow-edged rivers carrying fleets of spawning salmon inland from the Bering Sea. No fish will go to waste – they feed the mouths of humans, bears, wolves, ravens, eagles and dissolve as nutrients in the soil and water.
Togiak elder Elsie Abraham knows well this precious balance of her wild home, and takes good care to extend this knowledge to the younger generations like Aubrey Gosuk and Skylar Wassillie, whose joy is palpable as they reel in jack salmon and rainbow trout from Togiak River. Complete with harvests of sour dock, stinkweed, and salmon berries, the natural abundance here fills bellies and hearts. They are made of this. A cycle unbroken.
Arctic and Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuges 2017
The summer of 2017 I was invited back up to work with US Fish and Wildlife Service as an artist in residence in their National Wildlife Refuge system in Alaska. In 2016, the residency culminated with a beautiful artwork that described the southern portion of the 19 million acre Arctic Refuge and the Gwich’in people. We were presented a challenge: the Refuge is millions of acres more than I could ever see in one visit and there are two distinct groups of Native people who call it home, the Gwich’in in the South and the Inupiaq Eskimos in the North. So we did another project!
The first part of the month of August was spent along the Hula Hula River in the Brooks Range Massif in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and in Kaktovik, a small village of Inupiaq Eskimos on the Arctic Coast. I then flew across the state of Alaska (which is a third of the size of our country!) and spent the latter half of the month along the Kuskokwim River in Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge visiting village after village of Yup’ik Eskimos. YK Delta NWR boasts the largest population of Native people, and the Yup’ik continue to this day to retain a great portion of their traditional ways of life on the river: fishing for salmon, hunting moose and caribou, and harvesting berries from the tundra.
The resulting work below are sketches created in the field, portraits drawn of the people who shared stories with me, and the final two pieces for US Fish and Wildlife Service, owned and used by them for education, environmental efforts, and Native relations. The projects continue to evolve and touch me deeply, and I hope the artwork will continue to inspire for years to come.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Ida Angasan, 72 years old, Kaktovik
Isaac Akootchook, 96 years old, Kaktovik
Final Commission for US Fish and Wildlife Service, Fairbanks
“The Arctic Miracle of Life: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge”
Featuring: Betty Brower and Isaac Akootchook of Kaktovik
At the northernmost point of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, rivers split at the Continental Divide and wind through the Brooks Range Massif. Out onto the flat Coastal Plain they flow, depositing nutrients into a teeming Arctic Ocean. Here, mother polar bears den in the winter and caribou birth calves in the spring. Wolves pursue caribou and Dall’s sheep over tundra trails, and bowhead whales carrying ancient threads of the sea nourish a people who call this place home – the Inupiaq Eskimos of Alaska.
Elders like Betty Brower and Isaac Akootchook who thrive here know it to be a land of self-reliance, but also radical interdependence.
By recognizing the cycles that push and pull at the North of the planet, we can find roles in supporting this persistent
Arctic Miracle of Life.
Kuskokwim River, Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge
Sophie Sakar, 75 years old, Chuathbaluk
Patricia Yaska, Chuathbaluk
Samuel Jackson Sr., 93 years old, Traditional Chief Kwethluk
Polly Andrews, 32 years old, Anchorage
Final Commission for US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bethel
“Inextricably Intertwined: Kuskokwim River and Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge”
Featuring: Samuel Jackson Sr. of Kwethluk and Sophie Sakar of Chuathbaluk
Winding down the Kuskokwim River towards the delta, the earth flattens, trees disappear, and the expanse of tundra becomes unfathomable. Upriver, 75-year-old Sophie Sakar collects the abundant wild blueberries of the late summer tundra, her backdrop, the Russian Mountains, of the last undulations in the terrain. Those same hands that boil moose in stew, take apart whitefish for akutaq, and fillet salmon for drying, rebuilt her village from the ground up.
Downriver, Samuel Jackson Sr., speaking only his native tongue, tells harvest stories as his eyes trail flocks of geese overhead. At 93 years old and the traditional chief, his family legacy spans up and down the river. The magic of the wild Kuskokwim is evident as rounding every bend of the river sends waterfowl and osprey into flight, and through its history with its people, the Yup’ik Eskimos of Alaska, who to this day live inextricably intertwined with the river that sustains them.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge 2016
I traveled with the US Fish and Wildlife Service as an artist in residence to Arctic Village, a village of 120 Gwich’in people, and into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. At 19 million acres, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the largest in the country, and is located entirely above the Arctic Circle. It is a land of strong contrasts, all at once vast and untouched, and still altered by climate change and the continued use of resources. By walking upon this land alongside the people who have existed here for a thousand generations, my ideals were tempered, yet my inspiration soared.
Traveling to these remote locations and being altered by the land, animals and people is a gift I know only one way to fully repay: with my creations. The final pieces are owned and used by the US Fish and Wildlife Service for education, inspiration, Native relations, and activism. Below you will view my sketchbook entries created in the field, portraits of elders in Arctic Village, and the final piece that includes the portrait of Trimble Gilbert, Gwich’in Elder of Arctic Village.
David Solomon, Arctic Village
Ernest Erick, Venetie
Trimble Gilbert, Arctic Village
Final Commission for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Fairbanks
“As Above So Below: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge”
Featuring: Trimble Gilbert of Arctic Village
Through the layered complexities of the Arctic landscape, the continuity and the connection of all things surface. The Arctic loon calls out from the mouth of the Teedrinjik River, cutting through mighty mountains and sparse spruce forest. The call is met by the swans flying above and the caribou grazing below. Merging with the mountainside, Gwitch’in elder Trimble Gilbert bears a look that is telling of the depth of the People of the Caribou, their understanding of the land’s workings, and wondering what is to come.
Melting permafrost reveals that a land, even this vast and untouched, is subject to the effects of climate change. Here, in one of the wildest places on our planet, we find context and lessons for life. The importance of wilderness is immeasurable.
As above, so below.