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Larry Ahvakana | Bio | Current Works | Archive | Region Info
Description : Photo
Tribal Name: Ulaaq and Sweetcharuq
Tribal Affiliation: Inupiat

Larry Ahvakana was born in Fairbanks and raised in Point Barrow, Alaska, until his family moved to Anchorage when he was six years old. The move marked drastic changes in Larry's life; he left behind the grandparents who helped to raise him and he had to learn English to survive in his new environment. Many of the traditional cultural influences of his childhood were put aside as Larry attempted to fit into a world that was very different than the one into which he was born.
Larry drew and painted in school as a boy, but when he attended the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, his found his Native identity reawakened and respected. There, he visited nearby Native communities and participated in traditional feasts and ceremonies with local people. Those experiences recalled deep emotions, and significant memories of the culture that is central to his art and life.
One of Larry's mentors while at IAIA, was Allan Houser, the legendary Apache sculptor. Although Larry remembers occasionally whittling as a child, he credits Houser with being a strong influence as he learned to carve. In addition to studies at IAIA, Larry also attended New York's Cooper Union School of Art and graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design with a Fine Arts Degree.
Now in his sixties, Larry is widely recognized as both an artist and an educator. He maintains close ties with his family in Alaska, returning there regularly to participate in traditional feasts and ceremonies.
Well-trained in a variety of media, including stone and glass, Larry enjoys combining materials and doing "whatever develops a story." For carving wood, he prefers old-growth red and yellow cedar. His mask featured in the Carvers' Gathering is a depiction of a traditional story about the creation of King Island. Two mythic images comprise the mask: a bullhead fish and an auklet, a bird known to inhabit the island.
Although Larry enjoys innovation, he also respects tradition by dancing and making ceremonial pieces such as masks and drums. He heeds his own advice, saying "look deeply into culture if you are using it in your work."
An Interview with Larry Ahvakana
Alaska Group Show 2011

SG: The move from Barrow to Anchorage marked a drastic change in your life - especially in the context of changing from a traditional Inupiaq lifestyle to a mainstream, non-traditional one. What are some traditions from your Barrow childhood that remain with you today? How have they informed and influenced your artwork?
LA: When my parents and I left Barrow and moved to Anchorage, I had just turned 6 years old. I only spoke Inupiaq with very little English. Flush toilets were a big thing. Communicating with other children and neighbors was hard, but I made friends.
The thing that stayed with me was hearing the language. I slowly lost most of my language because I was not being constantly taught; teaching was by example and my folks wanted me to learn English and be successful in the modern world. My folks both worked. My mother was a fabulous skin sewer and sold her craft and my dad was in the Army and then the National Guard.
Many people from Barrow would visit and that kept us in steady contact with the village and in a real way, the culture. They spoke Inupiaq as they talked and ate native food. I felt that the cultural influences on me seemed minimal. My folks, even while living in Anchorage, spoke Inupiaq, but encouraged me to speak English. They ate their traditional foods and practiced a subsistence way of life.
The most I incorporated my traditions (in my work) were when I attended the Institute of American Indian Arts. The instructors insisted on looking at one's traditions for inspiration. I saw my culture differently.
SG: You now move between Barrow and Seattle each year. Does the move require a change in your mindset, or is it natural?
LA: I was again able to see and experience the traditions of dance and ceremony. Hearing my mother and father speaking Inupiaq daily was refreshing. Reconnecting to family has been invaluable. Being in Barrow throughout the year allowed me to experience village life and its year-round events and ceremonies that are still in practice, like Kivgik (the Messenger Feast) and Nalukatuk, which occurs a few weeks after a successful whale hunt and for celebrating other of life's milestone. It also gave me time to think about my direction in art. I thought about what I previously did and I was able to see what others (artists) are doing in Barrow.
SG: If you could take any uniquely Inupiaq lessons, ethics or values and add them to non-Native mainstream culture, what would they be? How might they benefit non-Native society?
LA: Some of the most important Inupiaq values are:
Compassion: Although the environment is harsh and cold, our ancestors learned and teach to living with warmth, kindness, caring and compassion.
Avoidance of Conflict: The Inupiaq way is to think positive, act positive, speak positive and live positive.
Humor: Laughter is the best medicine!
Knowledge of Language: With our language we have an identity. It helps us to find out who we are in our mind and in our heart.
Hunting Traditions: Reverence for the land, sea and animals is the foundation of our hunting traditions.
Respect for Nature: Our Creator gave us the gift of our surroundings. Those before us placed ultimate importance on respecting this magnificent gift for their future generations.
Humility: Our hearts command we act on goodness. Expect no reward in return. This is part of our cultural fiber.
SG: Stonington's Alaska group show opens in early August. What is August like on the tundra? Which plants and animals are active? What would the Inupiaq be doing?
LA: On the Arctic Slope, the fall season is starting with hunting for caribou, fishing with nets and gathering berries. It is also the time to get ready for whaling. Fall whaling starts in September as the migration south starts. The Tundra is browning, the weather is still predictable, however, storms are frequent and the temperature is changing from warm to cold. Typical summer temperatures can reach 60 degrees from about the middle of June through the early days of August. The typical winter temperatures range from the teens to minus 45 degrees.
SG: Much of your recent art deals with singing, music and songs. What is the role of songs in Inupiaq culture? When and where would you hear singing and drumming? Do songs hold cultural knowledge? Entertainment? Both?
LA: The emotional reverence to the activity of life is felt through ceremony and inter-relationships of all the villages on the North Slope during Kivgik, the Messenger Feast. Dance and song are intricate parts of the ceremony. The ceremony was passed down through oral history from one person to the next through families that were caretakers of the traditions. All aspects of life are reflected in the dramatic, involvement of the gatherings.
SG: Many Alaskan artisans remain in their villages carving in the traditional style. Has your experience of journeying and living in many parts of the nation influenced your choice of materials, style or themes? Do you feel that Native artists might benefit from moving locations, or conversely, from staying put? Is there a detriment to either extreme?
LA: I have always felt free to work with new materials that would give the work visual drama, or an easier way to express my ideas, but the harder materials are a challenge I welcome. Sharing ideas about images, materials, and tools is an intricate part of tradition. One is only limited by one's knowledge and being open to learning new ways of the arts is always good. I try to express cultural experiences with my work. I feel the culture of an artist -- the ways of an artist --is an integral part of the art being shown. The integration part of culture is the story and gives the artwork feeling and a place in the environment.