I was recently interviewed twice in the last two weeks. Once by an eager group of young college students, taking a college level course in Alaskan Native Contemporary Art. The questions they asked were very piercing and I could tell that they had taken time to do their research on me and my work and really thought deeply about my work in general. I was deeply moved by their thoughtfulness and care and I was also deeply inspired by their interest in my work.
I felt like that interview prepared me for yet another interview, this time by a fellow professional artist that I had made a friendship connection with at different national artistic gatherings. They were working on their thesis for their PhD program and also asked questions that really made me think deeply and thoughtfully about the evolution of my work.
I am also working on something of my own, that addresses the evolution of myself as a woman artist, and how my work has evolved through time. I will share a bit of these thoughts now, and this might be a subject for a few different blog posts, as the evolution of me being an artist really spans over the course of my entire life. It is a long-form story. I might have covered some of this arch in other blog posts, so there might be some overlap.
I remember being about four years old. I was drawing a "chocolate chip head" man. I remember that I loved drawing, creating art. I felt that this was something I was meant to be doing. One of my babysitters as a young girl was an infamous Alaskan artist by the name of Claire Fejes. She wanted me to become an artist too. I remember being about 5 years old, in her house, looking at her easels, and her taking time to help me to play with art. She had given me one of her originals when I was a teenager, and as a young kid, she made an original small drawing for me and inscripted on it, "for Allison, whom I hope someday will become an Artist".
I still have that drawing with the inscription. I still remember how it felt to be in her apartment, to be facing that easel, the love she had for me when we reunited when I was a teenager, how she encouraged me again to pursue a career in the arts. I feel very fortunate to have had her impress upon my young psyche the value of being an artist. Looking back, she must have seen something in me, and now I wish that she was still physically alive so that we could talk more in depth about art and the practice of art.
When I was in third grade, I won a state-wide art contest for my grade level. I used pastels, and I remember the second place girl got very very upset that I won and she didn't. She was my young friend, but our friendship shifted after I had won.
I remember creating art in pre-school, and something in my soul clicked, like this was something I was meant to do, like swimming forward after being thrown into the water. I was comfortable and at peace in many mediums.
When I was eight, my mom brought me to an audition at the local University to be in a television commercial to promote dental health. I won the audition, and I remember clearly the bright bright lights, doing take after take, and her, beaming in the background while the crew worked around me. I hadn't asked to do the commercial, but she thought I would be good at it. Probably because as a little girl, I used to constantly "play dead" in front of my Mom, dying in innumerable ways. I would "die" right in front of her and stay dead for a very very long time. Sometimes she would react, other times she would wait it out until I would finally "come alive" again. I would also do other performative things, for my first audience, my family.
I remember my Aana (great-Aunt, but in this case my bio-grandma) Rhoda talking with my Aaka (grandmother, and in this case, Rhoda's sister) and my Mom in the kitchen when I was just about six years old. I was pretending to be asleep on the couch. They said that I had the same gift that Rhoda had, the ability to work a crowd and make them laugh. They recognized that within me at a young young age and encouraged it.
At around seven years old, I was in a play that my Mom wrote, directed and cast each year. This year was my turn to play the part of an angel. The play was a Nativity play, and it was done entirely in the Iñupiaq language. There was a beautiful set, and a choir that my Mom directed while the play was going on, the choir would puntuate the storyline. There was an audience, all sitting in the pews, and there was even special lighting and costumes. I remember my cousin June Bug was also an angel that year and we got in trouble during rehearsal because we kept elbowing one another, moving back and forth, wanting to shift positions so we could be seen better from the audience. "Mary Ann! Your Angels are fighting!" the Elders said, as they were laughing.
I remember taking piano lessons and I also played cello from third grade to eighth grade, with many many performances and rehearsals, many times of lugging my borrowed cello back and forth to school so that I could practice for the concert.
When I was in sixth grade, I was in a group choir play, and we all performed together. The director of that play saw something in me and encouraged me in sixth grade to memorize a monolouge and perform it in front of the entire school, which was a pretty big school in Fairbanks, Alaska. With her encouragement, I memorized every single line in that three minute comedic monolougue and I did perform it for all of my peers at the school wide talent show. I wasn't afraid, I was excited. I was ready. They laughed. I felt good about what I had done and I wish I could remember that teacher's name so that I could connect and thank them today.
I remember being teased for being Iñupiaq, for wearing parkas with wolverine and polar bear fur, for talking about eating frozen fish eyeballs and whale. I remember in fourth grade having two friends and we all named eachother after different kinds of asprin. Bayer, Tylenol, and I forget the other one. I remember that I was being teased so bad one year about my parka (this was fourth grade) that a group of boys that were teasing me and calling me names were playing "king of the mountain" on a small snowy hill in the playground. I became so enraged by their racial slurs and comments that I managed to fight every single one of those boys on my way up that hill, with my parka on, with my snowpants and boots. I wrestled them down one by one, as I was ascending. I then made it to the top and screamed, "I AM KING OF THE MOUNTAIN!".
Also in fourth grade, I was in a choir, and we had rehearsals in school. I remember how happy and passionate our choir teacher was, and how she expected us to be very disciplined with the music and performing.
My Mom every week would hang microphones in a smallish room in the upstairs of the church she was active in, and she would set it up with many Iñupiaq people in the room, with Iñupiaq songbooks on each chair. My Mom would record them with precision and then deliver the tapes through a long drive to the neighboring town of North Pole, to the radio station. And once a year, the choir would all gather in North Pole at the radio station to perform "live on the air" for Christmastime.
I remember doing a long-form installation on the path that ran along side the dirt road that led to our trailer in the trailer park. I wanted a series of steps in on the wall of the path, and meticoulously I dug these beautiful tiered steps that had many different possibilities for ascention along the trail. I remember going to that same spot each day like it was my job. It literally took me almost the entire summer to finish the project. I dug so deep that I was able to utilize the steps again year after year. They were dug deep into the wall in a unique half oval shape. I didn't think of it as an art installation then, but I do see it that way now. It was aesthetically beautiful.
I remember making mix-tapes as a 11 year old, and recently I found a tape that I had made and I was only nine years old! I had used two tape decks to make a mix tape of all my favorite songs. I found this recently and heard my own little girl voice, documenting the exact date and my age at the end of the tape.
These are some of my earliest memories.
I remember my Uncle who would come in from Kaktovik, with beautiful artwork he had made. My Mom would drive him to different places, and I would walk in with him as he would show his beautiful traditional art to the potential merchant. I remember when he did sell a beautiful baleen etching, he immedately took the money and bought a drill tool that he had wanted for so long, so that he could make more art. He still makes art to this day, and his wife is an artist, and his kids have also inherited many artistic abilities and gifts.
I remember being eight years old, we were driving to the Fairbanks Festival of Native Arts. I was in the backseat, and I was looking up at the moon. I wanted to compose a song, a song of my very own, and I did. I made a song, wrote it down with two verses that would circle back to the same chorus. I remember that my Aaka and Aapa and Mom kept asking me to sing the song over and over again, and if you asked me to sing it today, I would remember it word for word.
I remember looking up at the moon, knowing that the moon would see me my entire life. The moon would remember my growth, my journey.
Maybe tonight when I sleep, I will be flooded with more memories that set the foundation for the Artist that I am today. When I think about my evolution as an Artist, in my mind, I go back all the way to being about three years old, in pre-school, drawing, making fingerpaint masterpieces.
Goodnight, as I suspected, this post is the beginning of a series, as a part of my personal reflection on my journey to become the artist I am today. The evolution of me, my perspectives, my mediums, vision and work.
Allison Akootchook Warden