“The building shook, and everything transformed”
Since before 2018, the staff of CITC has been uprooted. Following a significant remodel of the Nat’uh Service Center, the November 2018 earthquake caused damage to the building; repairs sent staff back to the temporary offices they’d been working from during the renovation.
Then, just as employees began to make themselves at home in the freshly repaired and updated space, the COVID-19 pandemic transformed how we work: Many CITC employees have been doing their jobs remotely and have not stepped foot in the Nat’uh Service Center since March 2020.
When CITC finally reopens its doors to welcome back both staff and participants, a new face will greet them: a mask created by artist Drew Michael.
An original piece made of oak, basswood, poplar, baleen, and brass, among other materials, the mask was designed to honor the resiliency CITC’s employees and participants have shown throughout years of upheaval.
“Masks were [traditionally] made for a community to help tell a story,” explained Drew, who comes from Inupiaq, Yup’ik, and Polish heritage.
The story CITC’s Executive Vice President and CFO Amy Fredeen wanted to tell was a story of resiliency.
“I was really passionate about telling the story of how we didn’t let the earthquake stop us,” Amy said. “And I think all of the themes that Drew was able to weave in makes this mask the perfect piece for us.”
Amy invited Drew to create an original work of art for CITC after hearing him explain the story behind a mask he’d created for the Koahnic Art Auction. After several conversations with Amy and CITC President and CEO Gloria O’Neil, Drew found himself looking to the land and the sea as inspiration for the mask he would ultimately create.
“I wanted to show how we are connected to this place,” he explained.
The mask’s black and ocher accents represent the land and humanity. Hands reach dramatically out of either side of the mask to demonstrate the way each individual must reach outside of him or herself to connect to culture, and to the spirits, represented by the white fingertips.
“The beautiful thing about our culture is that it’s all of ours,” Drew commented. “We all build into it. That is what carries us through all of this. For CITC, the
building shook, and everything transformed. The world can physically change all around us, but if we have a connection to our culture and we honor that, we find healing and release.”
Even the backdrop Drew created for the mask’s display resonates with meaning: He carved the entire backdrop out of walnut; the natural brown tones of the wood are overtaken by blue hues to evoke the place where the land and the ocean meet.
“For me, I let things go when I go to the ocean,” said Drew. “It’s one of the elements that I think can bring transformation.”
When the Nat’uh Service Center reopens fully to the public, Amy said, CITC leadership hopes to host a grand reopening; they’re considering including a dance group that can perform the mask in a traditional ceremony.
For now, Amy hopes that when CITC employees and participants alike view the mask, their curiosity is sparked.
“Particularly for our youth who are growing up in urban Alaska and may not have the connection back to their roots, if they can be curious about what they see around them, we can invite them back into our culture, our language, our dances, our art,” she said. “And that connections is probably one of the most human things we can provide for people. I think the opportunities we provide at CITC are critical, but that sense of belonging is just as important.”
For information on accessibility to CITC’s Nat’uh Service Center and COVID-19 restrictions, please visit our COVID-19 Update and Resource Center.
About artist Drew Michael
Born in Bethel, Drew Michael was adopted, along with his twin brother, and grew up in Eagle River, Alaska, with feet in two worlds. As a Native man brought up in a predominately white setting, Drew said, “I never felt like I was part of anything.”
Then, through trips to museums and, later, a workshop at the University of Alaska, Drew encountered mask-making.
“There were all these masks all over the wall, and I had never seen anything like that. It just blew my mind,” he said. “Masks helped me see my identity as a Native person, and that helped me with accepting and owning all the parts of who I was.”
Drew started carving at age 13, learning from archeologist Bob Shaw, printmaker Joe Senungetuk, and contemporary Athabascan mask-maker, Kathleen Carlo. As he practiced his craft and developed his own style, he also studied the craftsmanship of works by master carvers and spent many hours comparing others works with his own designs and process, searching for his own niche. He applied research to his carvings, using trial & error to grow his work into what it is today.
Drew focuses on how masks were originally used by Yup’ik people, for healing and telling stories of things unseen. His work incorporates healing practices of the Yup’ik people and religious icons of European Christianity. The artist hopes to encourage people to find healing in ways that bring about balance in much the same way he has used these practices to find balance in his own life.
For more information, visit drewmichael.art.