In this interview, Drew Michael answers a few questions about his artistic vocations, his passion for cultural identity, and most importantly, his pieces that explore the development of principles of nature and history into beautiful forms with inspiring stories to be told.
Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself? Maybe a little bit about your academic or professional background.
I graduated from high school in 2002 in Eagle River, Alaska. I tried to attend a local university for higher education but soon realized that I needed to leave Alaska to broaden my perspective. Multnomah Bible College in Portland, Oregon was where I ended up going to school with the hopes of graduating with a double major in Bible and Theology/Elementary Education. I soon realized this was not for me and tried attending Portland Community College. This too was something I found that was not for me. After leaving the college scene I had no money and came back to Alaska to begin the long 3.5 years of working in the Arctic as an equipment operator for Schlumberger. I saved money and invested in purchasing a house to establish a home base where I also created an art studio. I paid off my school loans and bought a car that was reliable and quit my job to step into the world of self employed full time artist. This was one of the biggest and most important things I had ever done.
I now spend most of my time working in a studio separate from my home. Teaching has always been a gift and joy of mine and I am fulfilling this dream by traveling around the state of Alaska to remote villages where I teach all ages about culture and identity using the arts as a tool to open tough conversations. When I am not teaching I am working within Anchorage as a community activator. Along with my own research looking through books that document historical information, I do research in with objects like masks from the late 1800s with the dream of learning as much as I can to protect and activate a culture almost lost to assimilation.
What got you interested in art? Was there anything that motivated you to start carving and painting?
I have always been creative but did not have a specific outlet for my artistic expression until I took a mask carving class at the University of Anchorage, Alaska at the age of 14. I began learning about the basics of how stories and concepts were being told using masks. From that point on, I was learning about a craft in its own right and I had now been introduced to my culture. Mask making was my portal into my cultural identity.
What in your opinion is the hardest step in creating a masterpiece?
To create a piece takes a time. The first step for me is to draw and design a piece with a concept or theme in mind. I draw what I am feeling and dealing with on a daily basis. After the concept is created I cut the main form out of a block of wood usually basswood or yellow cedar. Then I work fast with a grinder that has a special Australian disk on it used to make rough cuts. After a piece is formed I take my gouges and chisels and clean up the form to give it that handmade touch. I do that same process for the back and inside of a mask. From there I decorate and finish a piece within 20+ hours of work.
I’m sure every single one of your pieces has a story. How do you find those stories and what inspires you to share them with people?
Each piece I carve tells a story of something I have been thinking about or feeling. I take time to sit and draw out images of emotions, feelings, experiences, and concepts about faith, love, hope, dreams, and desires. All of these things I try to tell in a way that most people can relate to. I have three main themes seen within my work: Christian icons of the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches, energy chakra spaces found within the body-line and Alaskan Native beliefs about how to connect and honor the world.
Does your work connect to your personal life sometimes?
Yes, my life and my work are so connected that they have in a way become one in the same. Many years ago I put out an intention to the universe that I wanted my life and art to become the same. And they have. I cannot separate them.
Where do you gather most of your inspiration for your work?
Most of my inspiration for my work has to deal with things I have been thinking about, feeling, and or seeing happen around me. I want to talk about these things because they represent parts of my life and current things people are dealing with in the world at the time the piece was created.
How do you pick their names?
I try to pick names that relate to the ideas expressed within each piece. This is probably one of my least favorite parts of the process of creating a mask.
Stay tuned for Part II of the Interview with a Unique Alaskan Artist series “From Alaska with Art”