Interview With A Unique Alaskan Artist: Drew Michael

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In the first part of the Interview with a Unique Alaskan Artist series, we talked with Drew Michael about his artistic vision, his love for Alaskan culture and the different stories told by his pieces and his masks. In part II of the interview, we asked Drew a few more questions about his passion for giving back to his community, the challenges he faces throughout his work and the ambitions that keep him moving forward.

Could you tell us what happens to your sculptures once you finish them? How are they shown to people and how can they contact you if they would like to know more?

After a piece is finished, it is housed within my art studio until a particular show takes place or until it is sold. Some pieces are created to be sold and sent off right away, so they do not spend much time in the studio. Most of the time people see my work online on social media platforms like Facebook or my website.

I believe you were teaching mask making. Could you tell us more about that?

In the last year I have thought about my responsibility to my culture and my people. I had a mantra shared with me from the universe that told me: “I am protecting and activating our culture”. This was so transformative for me because this statement has so much power, it urges me to look back at the past to learn from tradition, to protect these ways and activate the now. I must relate the old ways of doing things to the current world we live in. This is important because culture is not dead, and if we are to keep it alive we must learn from our past and move forward to create new traditions.

I teach mask making as a way to help people connect with this ancient cross cultural storytelling tool with their own stories and lives. Masks were not only used to tell stories. They were also used to pray to the universe, tell the creation story, share information about current events, bring people together through ritualistic dance, and to help people find healing. These are in some ways what made Yupik people Yupik. Our masks within our culture help define who we are as a people and how we fit into the world around. It is my duty to teach this to the next generation. I not only teach the process of mask making, I try to impart skills for life and how we can connect to ourselves and the world.

People usually know very little about Alaska, could you tell us if being an artist in Alaska is a challenging thing? Do you find all the materials and the support you need?

Being an artist in Alaska has been a great opportunity and risk. I feel like many people within society expect artists to protect culture and storytelling through the arts but do not honor and respect the artist as a philosopher, teacher, culture bearer, community builder, etc. The road has been great and opportunities wonderful but many times if the artist doesn’t fight for a reasonably wage for work or art, it will not be given. I have been able to make it as an artist because I am so well connected and networked within not only the artist realm but also many non-profits filling in the gaps government cannot. I feel like being an artist is more than just creating art and teaching, but also a community activator.

What is your dream? What big plans do you have for the future?

My dream when I was a child was to live a life full of possibilities, creating, teaching, community leadership, partnerships and collaborations, and to have one piece within a museum. What I have discovered along the way is that my life is filled with these things and much more than I could have expected.

If you had one message to young people out there, what would it be?

My message to young people is to try and dream big because if you do, you will aim higher than if you didn’t. Just try to take the risk. You will have hard times but those are smaller than the large successes and joys found within what truly makes you happy. 

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