- Associated Press - Friday, February 12, 2016

SITKA, Alaska (AP) - Growing up in Eagle River, Drew Michael pursued art with a fervency that reached “nerd” levels.

“I built a replica of my house using Elmer’s glue and toothpicks - to scale,” he said, laughing when he recalls his pre-teen enterprise. “It was nuts.”

A few years later his parents, eager for him to connect to his Native culture, signed him up for a class with the Inupiaq master carver Joe Senungetuk.

“He introduced me to mask making,” with various tools that were very interesting to a 14-year-old, Michael said.

But he knew he had found his medium.

“I loved it. It was a little overwhelming. I hadn’t been introduced to my culture very much. I didn’t know what direction to go. I was worried about what other traditional artists would think. But I just realized I just needed to try to do it.”

Michael, now 31, has made a career for himself in the carving trade, showing and selling his work, giving talks at various venues, and teaching at schools around the state.

“Aggravated Organizms,” his most recent project with painter Elizabeth Ellis, opened at the Sheldon Jackson Museum. He is the featured guest at the annual meeting of the Friends of Sheldon Jackson Museum.

The opening featured a Native Art Silent Auction, the Friends annual meeting, and talk by Michael.

Museum curator Jackie Fernandez said the exhibit, which will be up through April, marks the southeast debut for the show. Fernandez has been eager to get Michael’s show here since it first went up in 2013, and believed it would work well in the space.

“We wanted to do something that would work in the gallery,” she said. “We have a beautiful ‘cabinet of curiosities’ feel here, and we felt that this is an exhibit that would juxtapose, for an interesting experience for visitors who come through the door. It brings some life to the museum.”

She also likes that visitors will be able to see similarities between the old Yupik masks on permanent display in the museum and Michael’s work.

The exhibit is a roomful of 10 giant basswood masks carved by Michael and painted by Ellis, illustrating 10 diseases common in Alaska. Michael said he and Ellis were inspired by the idea of how we are affected by outside influences, and went from there.

“I started thinking about how are we manipulated and disturbed by things around us,” he said. “Water, nuclear testing … what’s something we’re all affected by? Our health. What if we did something about how we’re manipulated by outside sources?”

The exhibit has already traveled around Alaska and to Seattle. Michael said he and Ellis have been pleased by the response to their open invitation to visitors to touch the pieces and even sign their names to the backs of the masks if they were affected by any of the represented health conditions - such as diabetes, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, fetal alcohol syndrome, HIV, behavioral health problems and alcoholism.

He said he knows that some of the masks are about topics that people don’t want to talk about - especially HIV and fetal alcohol syndrome - but he and Ellis have used the masks as jumping off points when talking to tribal groups and schools around Alaska. Those communities have included Unalakleet, St. Michael, Goodnews Bay, Bethel and Tatitlek.

“I love to engage, and so does Liz,” Michael said. “We try to partner with health organizations and have a conversation, with the focus of trying to connect people with resources for support, and try to mitigate issues within our environment.”

Michael was born in Bethel, the son of Yupik-Inupiaq mother and Polish father, and was adopted with his twin brother by white parents Christy Row and Larry Michael, a speech therapist and school psychologist respectively. His mother was eager for him to connect with his culture and find his artistic expression when she signed him up for the Senungetuk class.

That was the start of a journey for Michael, and he wanted to find more people to learn from.

“The biggest way to learn to do things is to do them,” he said. “But I definitely would go around and look at the process and learn from people who came before me. Look at books, look at other people’s expression, and think about the method of why things were made the way they were. And try some of that myself. Not copy the image, necessarily, but copy the function. That made me think of everything - I’m using everything in life to help me with my art. It’s not just what you’re looking for, but what’s available.”

His path after high school took a nontraditional route. After graduating from Chugiak High School, he went off to the University of Alaska Anchorage then to Bible college at what is now known as Multnomah University in Portland. Neither of these was the right fit for him.

“I realized it was not the best place for a Native artist and - at the time I didn’t know it - I was gay,” he said. “‘This was not for me.’”

He ran out of money, had a dream about his family in Alaska and decided to go home. He never stopped carving, even when he worked for years driving giant trucks in Prudhoe Bay. He said it wasn’t a waste of time - more of an “investment in my future” - since he earned enough money to pay off his car and student loans, buy a house and have money left for savings.

Five or six years ago, he left the North Slope and became a full time artist. He said it was a scary step to give up his good-paying job, but as soon as he did “it melted off the weight, the anxiety of trying to please someone else.”

Being an artist fulltime doesn’t mean sitting in a studio all day. Marketing, attending shows, teaching, giving talks, learning from people more skilled than yourself, participating in auctions and making connections with those who can buy or sell your art, or hire you as a teacher, are all skills that Michael has honed in the last five or six years.

“A lot of the work I do is, I try to create opportunity,” he said. “I try to be an example about what it means to be a Native male, or gay man, or entrepreneur.”

He said he makes an effort to follow the philosophy learning from the past, and moving the culture and art forward.

“My mantra is I’m protecting and activating our culture,” he said. “That came to me and it’s here in my life. … Helping people learn about culture, and make it relevant in today’s time. All art is a representation of time and place and perspective.”

Last summer he was Artist in Residence at the Sheldon Jackson Museum and the Sitka Fine Arts Camp.

Getting the exhibit around the state to the small communities has been quite expensive and involved sponsor underwriting.

An investor, Josh Morales, helped cover the cost of obtaining the northeast American straight grain softwood, and grants from Rasmuson Foundation and the Conservation Foundation helped pay for taking the exhibit to Fairbanks, Seattle, around Anchorage and Bethel. The Friends of Sheldon Jackson Museum received a Harper Arts Touring Fund grant - a Rasmuson grant administered by the Alaska State Council on the Arts - to bring the show and artist to Sitka. This year he’s hoping to take the show to Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories of Canada.

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Information from: Daily Sitka (Alaska) Sentinel, http://www.sitkasentinel.com/

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