Fairbanks has a vivid arts scene with a First Friday culture where galleries, specialty stores, and the visitor center host shows and receptions for the public while featuring one or more brilliant local artists. Guests can buy unique artworks directly from the artists.
Here the word “local” refers to artists from as far away as north of the Alaska Range in the South to the Arctic Ocean in the North and the Interior all along the Tanana River and medium run of the Yukon River. In Fairbanks, oil painting, quilting, glass art of various kinds, silver smiting, sculpturing and jewelry crafting are big. Alaskan native artists living along the Arctic Ocean and the Bering Sea are famous for their seal mukluks, and ivory carving. Silver carving is big in the Alaska Southwest. In the Interior, Athabascan Indian artists are famous for their handmade bead works, dolls and skin sewing as well as spruce, birch and grass baskets. These baskets are so artful and well-made that there is even an entire collection at the Museum of the North.
What I find interesting about the beading is technique. On felt, it is done with one beading needle. Often waxed dental floss is used to sew on one bead at a time.When the bead design is applied directly on leather, typically two needles are used. A sewing needle serves to go thru the leather. Once on the right (beaded) side, the sewing needle secures the thread between the beads that are picked up with the beading needle. Then the sewing needle is pushed back to the left side while the beading needle remains on the right side all the time to pick up new beats on its thread. Sometimes three or four beads are secured at a time. It is fun watching the artist doing the beading.
The beads can also be used to put a bead finish at the edge of an ornament. The needle is pushed from the edge of the wrong side of the piece to be ornamented. Once the needle is on the right side, three beads are put on the string. Then the needle is pushed thru the right side at the edge just in touch with the first bead.Then the needle is put up thru the center of the first bead, which is somehow tricky. It works best with beads with large wholes. Then two other beads are put on the thread, the needle is pushed thru the right side at the edge just in touch with the first bead of the last three beads. Then the needle is put up thru the center of that bead. Then two other beads are put on the thread, …. Repeat until the entire edge of the piece has its ornament.
These native artists link the past to the current and bridge the cultures. Their bead works encompasses traditional items like beautifully beaded moose hide slippers or booties, regalia, head bands, mittens and belts, as well as modern items like modern day hair pins with traditional beading embellishment, or earrings with porcupine spines. The parkas and kuspaks are of great interest for the Fairbanks and tourist fashionistas.
Kuspaks are cut straight up and down, i.e. they aren’t figure flattering and do not show any feminine features. However, they are incredibly designed with respect to life in Alaska for which many Alaskan women have at least one kuspak. Their hood fits tight to the face and prohibits mosquitoes from biting the neck when berry picking or gardening. Traditionally it is worn over pants (jeans). It comes in two lengths – upper tights (tunic lengths) or just above the knee. The latter can be worn alternatively as a dress. Kuspaks come with or without skirt. In the front they have a big pocket that can be accessed from both sides. Along the pocket, hood and the hem or in case of a skirt above the skirt attachment to the garment there is some embroidery and/or zig zag embellishment. The fabric is printed tightly weaved cotton.
Fairbanks is a destination. Today you don’t come thru like it was the case during the times of the Iron Curtain. Thus, when you visit Fairbanks and don’t have a First Friday during your stay you may find authentic Native Alaskan Art also at the Morris Thompson Visitor Center, in the souvenir stores in town as well as in the galleries and the souvenir section of the Museum of the North. Besides the basket collection, the Museum of the North also has a large collection of paintings by Alaskan artists. Just go in to browse to see the diversity of Alaska art for yourself.
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Photos: G. Kramm (2015), N. Mölders (2017)
Copyright 2013-2017 Nicole Mölders | All rights reserved