Skiff's Eye View
In his Anchorage art studio, Alvin Eli Amason explains how to navigate a boat the old way, without radar or electronics. Perched on a stool, wearing paint-spattered jeans, an otter peering over his shoulder from a nearby canvas, Amason says in his day, a person had to “figure stuff out.” That’s the way he learned, growing up on his bear guide grandfather’s skiff in the waters around Kodiak.
“What happens if you lose your electronics?” he asks. “Do you know how to get out of here? Do you know where you are? So you watch things. … You learn things like following a consistent wave direction, keeping your skiff attitude the same as when you started. That’ll get you in the general direction.
“And then you know the sounds. You can tell when there’s a rock near. You can hear it, the water against it. And then you watch the color of the water. In Kodiak … if it gets dark Prussian blue, you know it’s blowing right over there, several miles away, you can see it. And that gives you about 25 minutes or so to get out of here. You’re brought up to always be looking.”
That habit of careful observation has served the Sugpiaq painter and sculptor well, both on the sea and in the art world. He’s created a body of instantly recognizable, often multi-dimensional work drawing from the animals and marine life he knows so intimately.
In 2018, the same year he accepted an Alaska Governor’s Award for the Arts, Amason received the Distinguished Artist designation from Rasmuson Foundation.
Over the years, Amason watched happily as contemporaries and friends were selected for the honor. “I just kept thinking, well, that’s cool! And they’re older than me, they deserve it. And (then) I’m thinking, you know, I’m like two years behind them!”
Since receiving the award, Amason completed a massive, three-piece project at Southcentral Foundation, called “Peep, peep, peep,” and continued teaching at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where he is an associate professor of art and Alaska Native Art Program coordinator.
‘Just show up’
Like so much else for Amason, teaching goes back to how he was raised.
“You learn about responsibility very young. Like you’re taking your family out to a picnic on this island, and you see this wind, well, you’re responsible, you’ve got to get them out of there.
“You know, you learn those things, and I think that carries over to things like mentorship. You’re responsible sometimes. You really help forge a person’s life in a constructive way.”
He teaches what he’s learned. That, despite unofficial rules against it, black is a perfectly good color to use in painting. That not everyone will like what you do. That it’s just wasted energy competing with other artists.
“Spend that energy on making stuff.”
And the big lesson: “Just to show up. You’ve got to show up. It’s a job.”
Most of the time, anyway.
“… You realize there’s a point where you really have to take off, too. For a while I felt like maybe I was showing up too much. Maybe I’ve just got to back off, live a normal life.
“You know you spend a lot of time here alone, there’s all this inward thinking, you start talking to yourself, but when you start answering, get out of here!”
Why do salmon jump out of the water?
Especially, Amason says, when a piece just isn’t coming together. A fan of paying attention to “first marks” and not over-editing, he also believes there’s a need sometimes to let things settle.
“I think, mentally, you’re probably just tired, and so you can dink around with something … and nothing happens. You’ll be working all afternoon and you walk away, come in fresh a couple days later. Maybe in 20 minutes you’ve got it nailed. Some pieces are real jerks and some are easy. Just like people.”
Amason never planned to become an artist. In college, he studied to be a pilot but got sidetracked and wound up in the Art Department. He was unknowingly building his toolbox, experimenting with various media and styles, including giant airbrush portraits of friends. Then his lifelong habit of keeping a journal changed everything.
Amason sketched in his journal, but also jotted reminders of particular mannerisms and overheard phrases.
Like when his grandfather Eli explained why salmon jump out of the water, “they jump to see where they’re at!” Or when his mother’s landlord, talking about a storm, said, “the wind came up like you opened the door.”
One day, Amason and his painting teacher were drinking coffee from cups emblazoned with poker cards. The instructor asked to look at Amason’s journal and suddenly became quiet.
The teacher said, “This is what you should be painting,” Amason says. “And I needed to hear that, I really did.”
His master’s exhibition, “Journey Through a Kelp Patch,” included images of otters wrapped in seaweed, sea ducks and whales, with phrases written on the canvases, like his grandfather’s trick for differentiating seals and otters from a distance: “seals are one bump, otters are two.”
Amason was raised largely by his grandparents. Years ago, his grandfather asked a question that proved to be a crossroads. He was already an artist by then and his brother Jimmy worked in the arts, too, becoming a guitar tech for musicians like Stephen Stills. Their late brother Billy fished commercially. On this day, Amason’s grandfather asked them to come into his den.
“He says, ‘I want to talk to you boys. If I buy you a brand-new (fishing) boat, will you stay at home?’” Amason remembers. “And Jimmy and I couldn’t do it.”
Home to Kodiak and his own small island
Still, he knew how badly his grandfather wanted him nearby, so he made it a point to return home as often as he could. Even now, years after his grandfather’s death, Amason finds comfort — and artistic inspiration — in going home to Kodiak and to the smaller island nearby he inherited from him.
“You have to keep going back. Memories are great, but you know, you’re different now and I paint different now and I may look at things a little bit different, or realize things that I was told I should have paid attention to,” he says. “It’s fun to have a fresh dialogue.”
“I think you’ve just got to pay attention and keep tuned up that way.”
A hallmark of Amason’s work is that it’s often multi-dimensional. A baby duck’s yellow beak protrudes curiously from the canvas, or a magpie perches on a branch dangerously close to a giant grizzly’s head. Sometimes elements dangle in front of or alongside another image, something the wooden oyster catchers on Amason’s worktable will do in a future piece.
Growing up Russian Orthodox, Amason often saw lit lamps in front of the icons, so it “seemed natural to hang stuff in front of paintings.” And his grandma’s kitchen, with shelves and hooks for teacups and other items, played a role too, he believes.
And there’s a technical benefit.
“The other thing is when I make something 3D, I don’t have to lie and make shadows. They have their own. Because I’m not good at that.”
The images are close-up and eye level, a viewpoint acquired from a lifetime in Amason’s grandfather’s low dories.
“Because my perspective is almost like you’re sitting down in a skiff. It’s right there. It’s not high up in the bridge of some trawler. It’s down there, where I was raised.”