In this week’s post, an Alaska artist deeply connected to the sea finds new inspiration in the sands of the American Southwest.

Peter Williams (Photo credit: Fabio Domenig)
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“I cried when I found out I got the residency,” says Peter Williams, who designs and fabricates clothing featuring the fur from seals and sea otters that he hunts near his home in Sitka. “A lot of validation for my work came with it, both from being selected, and from being in Sante Fe.”

Williams spent the dead of winter in the desert sun at the Santa Fe Art Institute as a participant in the Artist Residency Program, which sends Alaska artists to organizations in the Lower 48 and brings Lower 48 artists to Alaska. The residency gave him the time and space to focus on designing and making new accessories. It also reinforced the spiritual underpinning of his work.

“I didn’t realize how much of a water person I was until I spent time in the desert,” said Williams. “I felt that the desert wanted every last drop of me. It was a powerful and scary feeling. It made me see why religious figures went to the desert and talked to God there.”

Williams seeks connections with God through art based on subsistence. In his application for the Artist Residency Program, Williams wrote that his artistic goal is to “celebrate the oneness of all things, with an emphasis on the human spiritual relationship with nature.” His work relies on a deep connection with the seals and sea otters that have sustained Alaska Natives for millennia.

“I dream of them, I talk to them, I eat them—they turn on my lights,” he says. He means this in figurative terms and well as in terms of paying his electric bills, explaining that making functional art from the animals he hunts is part of a journey of healing the trauma embedded in his Yup’ik and European ancestry. He hopes to bring seal and sea otter fur back into American high fashion in a way that turns the tide on the troubled history of the fur industry in Alaska.

Peter Williams - shoes and slippers

Shoes and slippers made by Peter Williams.

After six years of trying to break into the world of high fashion, Williams feels that his career is gaining momentum, and the residency in Santa Fe provided another step forward. He received valuable feedback from Institute staff familiar with design and the fashion industry. And he created designs and pieces that he took with him to Fashion Week in Brooklyn shortly after the residency, including earmuffs and infinity scarves, and new patterns for mittens that he made at home. It was his first runway show, and his work was well received.

When asked about how the residency in Santa Fe influenced his work, Williams was quick to respond by talking about the beauty of the desert landscape. “The vibrancy of colors really inspired me,” he said. You can admire those colors in a set of shoes he designed and sewed during the residency – sneakers, loafers and slippers in pinks, greens, blues and brown, trimmed with the fur from seals and sea otter he brought with him from Sitka.