Friday, October 2, 2009

Research and Inspriation: Eklutna Cemetery and Alaska's Totem Poles

Aside from working on the hardanger embroidery pieces (I started a second much smaller one as well), I'm cooking up a paper quilt project with my friend and fellow artist, Sarah L. Hunt. We were inspired by this lovely paper quilt by the Pin Pals. They also do many adorable and finely crafted items of which we're big fans.
Sarah and I are also avid fans of quilting. My mother's a quilter and I'm lucky enough to have two quilts she's made me (and I fully expect I'll be getting more as the years go by. Hells, I plan on having kids just so I can score extra cute kid themed quilts for them). Sarah collects antique quilts and quilt blocks. So between us, we've got a pretty good understanding of quilts and their history and the many avenues quilters have taken the quilt format.
And so, Sarah and I are developing our paper quilt idea. It'll most likely be a tripdic, each panel being 2x3 or there abouts.

Anyway, we're drawing inspiration from several sources, but the ones I'm concentrating on deal with my first life memories in Alaska. That's where I was born, in Anchorage, and spent the first 5 years of my life there. Though I've not been back since, it has stayed with me. And so I periodically come back to it, to a cemetery in particular, in my artwork. I'm looking forward exploring the imagery from Alaska in this latest project.

So, let me introduce you to Eklutna Cemetery:


Spirit houses.

Eklutna Cemetery is located about 30 miles north of Anchorage. I went there when I was very little, with my mom. I remember running around the houses, and it must have been spring because it was chilly and I had my windbreaker on. But it was sunny. And there were dragonflies flying to and from the spines of these spirit houses. At the time, I thought these were dog houses without doors. Some of the houses do in fact have doors, but a lot of them don't.

Anyway, I didn't really know what that memory was all about until years later when I was looking through an old family photo album and I saw some pictures of these same spirit houses. I was shocked. I didn't really think it was real. I just thought it was something I misinterpreted as a small child that sort of stayed with me, popping up in dreams or what have you. So, after asking my mom about the photos, she told me where the houses were.

The original church. It's now in ruins and a newer church is used for services.

Now, the other part of what I'm interested in are the totems. Back in college I'd done a series of print designs based off of the story of the Thunderbird and Great Whale, of which I have no photos (I know, stupid. ALWAYS document work!). But fast forward a few years later and we get these shadowboxes I made for a show:

They're the Eklutna Grave Series. The blue and red one is called "Eagle River" and the yellow, red and white one is "King Salmon". If you look at the tale-tail hump on the salmon's back, you can see a bird's head. I believe that was Raven. The "Eagle River" one is a relief map of the area of Eklutna. I chose these two subjects because at the time of my project there was this on-going land dispute between the native people and a railroad company. The railroad's possession of the land and their practices along Eagle River and into Eklutna was decimating the salmon population for the local people. These are supposed to be graves housing the spirits of these people's land and food, and by default, their theology and way of life, ergo the use of white for the land and salmon (no, not because it's Alaska and snowy up there. yeesh!).

So, I'm on the Eklutna train again, looking up and researching spirit houses. And now check out some awesome totem poles I'll be mining for imagery as well:

Circle of friends.

We're much bigger in real life.

I don't know a great deal about Alaska's totems but I'm looking forward to learning more. So far I'm just collecting images and seeking out particular animals that interest me. From there I'll be identifying them and reading the native stories that they're featured in to see who's story might fit in with what I'm aiming for.

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