In his brilliant essay collection The Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder writes: "We are capable of extraordinary transformations. In myth and story these changes are animal-to-human, human-to-animal, animal-to-animal, or even further leaps. The essential nature remains clear and steady through these changes. So the animal icons of the Inupiaq people ("Eskimos") of the Bearing Sea (here's the reverse!) have a tiny human face sewn into the fur, or underneath the feathers, or carved on the back or breast or even inside the eye, peeping out. This is the inua, which is often called 'spirit' but could just as well be termed the 'essential nature' of that creature. It remains the same face regardless of the playful temporal changes. Just as Buddhism has chosen to represent our condition by presenting an image of a steady, solid, gentle, meditating human figure seated in the midst of the world of phenomena, the Inupiaq would present a panoply of different creatures, each with a little hidden human face. This is not the same as anthropocentrism or human arrogance. It is a way of saying that each creature is a spirit with an intelligence as brilliant as our own. The Buddhist iconographers hide a little animal face in the hair of the human to remind us that we see with the archetypal wilderness eyes as well."
Lawrence Ahvakana is an Inupiaq artist who draws on traditional forms, spiritual ideas, and inua imagery to make contemporary mythic art. Ahvakana was raised in northern Alaska in a childhood deeply steeped in the traditions of his Inupiaq culture. He studied art at the Rhode Island School of Design, the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, and the Cooper Union School of Art in New York. His carvings, paintings, and multi-media art have been exhibited in museums and galleries all across the United States. "Through my work," he says, "I can express/create my ideas of tradition, those feelings of being part of a society that's thousands of years old, with contemporary artist influences like Alan Houser, Fritz Sholder, Charles Lollama, Paul Klee, Kandinsky and others. I continually gain insight, direction, and psychic or emotional strength through the stories of how the Inupiat defined their total subsistence lifestyle with the shamanism, ceremony, and the natural cycles of Arctic living."
Susie Silook is sculptor and writer of Yupik, Inupiaq, and Irish heritage. She grew up "on St. Lawrence Island, surrounded by sea mammals, ivory, carvers and the belief that everyone is expected to do something with their hands." Carving is traditionally a men's art on St. Lawrence Island, but Silook worked to expand the tradition by creating carvings from a woman's perspective, drawing on ancestral and mythic themes (both Alaskan and European) to portray the spiritual connections between humans, animals, and the land, imbuing her work with patterns and motifs from ivory carvings that are many thousands of years old. "Contrary to popular conception," she says, "I am not caught between two worlds, I am walking in many simultaneously. With these things in mind, I seek to communicate the evolution of Inuit art."
The three examples of Silook's work pictured here are: Man Being Born From Whale, Wood and Ivory Mask, and Mermaid. More of her art can be seen on the Alaska Gallery, Home & Away Gallery, Rasmuson Foundation and Boreal Art websites.