Sylvester Ayek is seen at his Anchorage studio in October 2017. (Photos by Jenny Irene Miller)
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As an emerging artist, I work full-time at my day job and continually challenge myself to create art after normal working hours. I enjoy the challenges and have been growing both professionally and personally in my fellowship position with Rasmuson Foundation as well as an artist. One of the many perks is working with and supporting local artists, which makes everything worthwhile. Late last year, I had the opportunity to visit with Sylvester Ayek in his Anchorage studio, and learn how and why he creates art.

In 2004, Ayek’s dedication to the arts earned him Rasmuson Foundation’s Distinguished Artist Award, highlighting his creative excellence and superior accomplishments in the arts. He was the first artist to receive this honor.

Sylvester Ayek works at his Anchorage studio in October 2017. (Photo by Jenny Irene Miller.)

Ayek personifies the Inupiaq values of humility and respect. He was born and raised on King Island. He grew up on a traditional lifestyle, which included subsistence activities and Inupiaq dancing. As a young boy, he learned to carve walrus ivory, and he often carved simple ivory mammals and walrus tooth charms. This early training would later prepare him for a career in the arts. He now lives in Nome and works in both Nome and Anchorage.

I am originally from Nome and was raised in both Nome and Fairbanks. I grew up in a family where art was valued. My great uncle (my grandma’s brother), Ron Senungetuk, founded the University of Alaska Fairbanks Native Art Center in 1965 and was recognized himself as a Foundation Distinguished Artist in 2008.

My main medium is photography, although I also work in sound art and video. I connected with Ayek to photograph him and his work for the Foundation’s just-launched Distinguished Artist online gallery. This new feature on our website celebrates and promotes all of the Distinguished Artists, including Ayek and Senungetuk.

During my recent visit to Ayek’s studio, he shared with me his complex process of creating art. I learned how his projects receive the utmost respect and attention, often involving concept sketches and miniature models. These evolve during the creation process to then become a signature Ayek piece often containing both abstract forms and elements of Inupiaq identity.

Sylvester Ayek is seen at his Anchorage studio in October 2017. (Photo by Jenny Irene Miller.)

While attending the University of Alaska Fairbanks and studying under Senungetuk, and eventually Alaska Pacific University, Ayek focused on visual arts. “My fascination and interest have always been in the abstract art forms,” said Ayek. Today, Ayek is continually inspired by Inupiaq and Southwest Alaska identity and art. He primarily works with walrus ivory and marble, wood and stone cuts, soft metals too. His pieces range from delicate jewelry to life-size sculptures.

Ayek’s work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions throughout Alaska. His work can also be found in permanent collections in Alaska and as far as the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, as well as in extensive private collections.

Receiving a Distinguished Artist Award gave Ayek a break from his constant “frenzied artwork schedule.” It “means a lot to the recipients,” he told me. “It allows them to continue in their chosen lifetime trade and hopefully [will] encourage young artists.”

This visit showed me that perseverance is just as important in the beginning of an arts career as it is for a mature artist, like Ayek.

The 15th recipient of our Distinguished Artist awards will be announced this week.

Jenny Irene Miller is one of Rasmuson Foundation’s Momentum Fellows, a program of Philanthropy Northwest that prepares professionals from underrepresented communities for careers in the philanthropic sector.