Lisa Apangalook | Anchorage, Alaska | Native American Artist | Ivory Jewelry | Local Business Feature
Alaskan Business + Artist Feature
Before the holiday season, I threw together a little guide on who to shop with locally so we can do a better job of supporting our own artists and small businesses. That bloomed into the idea of featuring an artist and/or business owner every month on the blog with a little q+a and a photoshoot. Why do this? Well, as an artist myself and a business owner, I find it hard to communicate with clients/customers that I am a human being. I think we lose that in the consumerism and it’s really important that we see these businesses for who they are, people. We have bills to pay, families to feed, a roof to keep over our head, and sometimes (maybe a lot of times) we like to splurge and get ourselves a coffee while out and about. Most importantly, we all have a story of how we got here. People don’t just wake up and say, “Hey! I’m going to start a business now!’, there’s a process, a story. That story is usually pretty damn inspiring and it needs to be heard.
I’m telling you ^ this because I want you to realize that your dollar is SO important to us. We need you, literally, and I hope that seeing these artists/businesses as the people that they are will help you to understand the importance of choosing small over big box stores when possible.
I found Lisa on Instagram many months ago and was instantly sucked in. Her honest portrayal of herself on social media is probably what interested me the most at first, but when I saw the jewelry she creates I just knew, I had to photograph this woman. There were so many questions for me when I scrolled through her feed. What this something she learned from her family? Where does she source her ivory? What is her story? And so, I asked. We had coffee and she showed me her beautiful work and she talked with so much love when describing her art. Lisa truly loves this and her story is something I think we all need to read right now, especially in the midst of our curtain political climate. Native Americans are alive and well, we need to be supporting them, we need to be seeking them out for their art instead of paying someone pennies for an “inspired” piece. We need to support indigenous women.
Thank you, Lisa, for taking part in this. I’m so happy we aligned and I was able to document you doing what you love while also listening to your beautiful story.
Please read through our little Q+A and hopefully learn a little something about what it means to support a Native artist and know the story that is behind every piece Lisa creates.
1. Tell us about you. Who are you?
I am a Siberian Yupik artist originally from Gambell, AK located on St. Lawrence Island. Both sides of my family are from the island. My name is Lisa Apangalook and my given Siberian Yu'pik name is Teparghuq. I was born in Anchorage and lived in Gambell until I was about 5 and my parents moved our family to Anchorage for better education and extra curricular opportunity. I have a 4 year old daughter that this type of income supports and I am following the footsteps my father has but I believe I am paving my own path. My dad was very young and in his Junior year of college and though he tried to raise his children on a college student income, it was very difficult. So began his 30+ year career one as of the most well known Alaska Native artists. I was pretty much raised in several of his shops around his work so artwork in my family is something familiar and close to us, but I never pictured myself as an artist until recently. He told me about the day he began carving, it broke my heart and yet I am so proud to have known where he began and how hard he worked to support his family and keep his home afloat. It was my older sister's birthday, my mother was a stay at home mom and my dad was still in colllege working at a local grocery store part-time. He was getting ready for class and he noticed my mom had been crying. She said, "it's Leandra's birthday and we have nothing to eat, no cake and no gift for her." This was our reality moving from St. Lawrence to the city. So my dad went to a relative's trailer and asked if he can try and carve something to get a cake for my sister. The relative gave him a very small piece of ivory and my dad spent the day carving out his very first piece, a seal. He sold it to a local gallery and was able to celebrate his older daughter's birthday. That was the beginning of his career and all that hard work continues to reflect in his life and his work. If it were never for his encouragement and support of me working with traditional materials, I wouldn't find myself carving this jewelry successfully. I am the daughter of a Siberian Yupik artist who raised me to be the artist I am today.
2. Tell us about your art, what do you "do"?
Because I was constantly in my dad's shop and occasionally sanding for him, it sparked somewhat of an interest in me to try and carve ivory. My first ivory piece was a small walking polar bear. It came down to the final touches and I accidentally shaved off the back foot and the polar bear was uneven. My dad still encouraged me to sell the piece. I brought it to the owner of Aurora Borealis art gallery in the captain cook hotel and one of the owners showed no interest in the piece but the second one said the mistake, "added character." I was just excited to do what my dad did. But I didn't want to put the work into the sculptures like he did, so my first was also my last until 2013. I had met one of the band members of a local valley band whose show was completely sold out and I had no money to go, they put me on their list for free though I offered to pay for a single ticket. So to thank them, I carved my first set of ivory guitar picks. During the holidays in 2013, I gained somewhat of a following for the guitar picks and began selling them on the side for extra income. But still, I didn't believe this would be a career like my dad had. Fast forward through several jobs and becoming a single mom, it was a struggle to raise a child with the jobs I had. I opened my own coffee shop in the village but like my parents, I want to give my daughter more opportunity so we moved back to Wasilla from Gambell. My dad came to me with a tusk, saying "make something or cut slices out of this tusk." It was a beautiful Walrus fossil ivory tusk. Last spring I cut out my first ivory "pendant" batch. It was a slow start finding who I was as an artist and what I was going to do. Though I wanted to stay close to my traditional roots, I started adding metal chain to my pendants. I went to my first gallery and was told, "these are not authentic and will not sell because of the chain." I went to my second gallery and they bought the single pendants without chain. I finally went to another gallery and they were unsure about how my jewelry would sell because its not "traditional." They bought a batch and within a couple months they began to sell out and ask for more. So I began my jewelry line. I attempted a more contemporary approach carving out rectangle necklaces and didn't find that it matched who I was. I started buying more walrus ivory material to continue to cut simple slices from tusks. I had a small following on my instagram page where I sell my jewelry which grew immensely last fall. There are several Alaska native artist who carve ivory jewelry. But not many people have seen walrus ivory pendants like I carve.
The process of making my jewelry doesn't come easily as it is sometimes difficult to buy or find material. I try to mainly work with fossil walrus ivory or old ivory which is usually found buried under ground. some is found beached and some dive for it. If fresh or white walrus ivory is available to me I will also work with it as there is a growing demand for it. Our island is known for hunting many sea animals, including whale, seal, fish, in rare cases anymore, Polar bear, and Walrus. None of these animals are hunted for their material. They are hunted to survive the harsh conditions in which our people have lived for centuries. They are hunted for their meat and absolutely nothing goes to waste when it comes to harvesting these animals. Ivory is a material that has been used among our people since i'm sure they began hunting walrus. It was used to make necessary tools, hunting "sunglasses", jewelry and even toys. We do not hunt the walrus or kill the walrus for their ivory. A lot of cases, the ivory is untouched or left or thrown back into the sea. which is why we find fossil or beached ivory. Once the land was taken and when money began circulating the island, many of our people had no source of income and still to this day do not have an income. So we rely on our traditional artwork. But we remain close to our culture and traditional values by keeping this craft alive. It keeps ups alive too. In every aspect. These animals feed several families who have no income and more than one village.
Because I am still fortunate to traditionally use these materials, I have modernized a few of my pieces that are typically traditional art pieces in many forms. The Mother and Child. I first started carving single pieces and in order for me to grow, I drew inspiration from my own relationship with my daughter and the bond that we have as a mother and child. I pieced together two separate chains and made them into a single necklace, layering small ivory pendants(child) on the first chain, above a larger ivory pendant (mother) on the longer chain. The Mother + Child necklace represents the inseparable bond between a mother and her child or her children.
3. What/Who inspired you to create? How does that reflect in your work?
I come from a line of artists, being both grandfathers on each side of the family and my own parents. I have several relatives who still traditionally carve ivory. As I said before, as a way to earn an allowance when I was younger I would sand for some of the artists in the shops my dad has carved. I followed my dad on his art deliveries an I was and still am completely blown away by his work, its almost hard for me to remain humble with such talented father. My mother is also a siberian yu'pik artist and she is known for carving ivory pins. So growing up between all of these artists I had enough inspiration to be proud of my yu'pik culture but never enough to attempt it until recently. I have come across several other artists all over but I have never seen any other work done like my father's. Though I do draw all my inspo from my family members, I draw also for my love of personal style and my interest in the fashion industry. I do try to keep my pieces simple and traditional but I would like to see my work adjust to coming trends. During my high school years until now I am known for standing out through the clothing I wear and I think that also reflects into my work. I want it to be simple but I also want my work to demand attention and I am doing my best to put that as much into my artwork as I can.
4. How/Where do you source your ivory?
When I began carving jewelry I had a single fossil ivory tusk my dad had given me and then I found myself digging through all of his scrap ivory trying to come up with new ideas for my line. It didn't work out as well but I still use scrap ivory when I can. I began buying fossil ivory chunks out of pocket from a local gallery owner who buys old ivory from St. Lawrence. I also traveled home briefly collecting and buying material when I can along with my father who traveled home for the hunting season who sent ivory sellers in my direction. I try to source a lot of my material directly from my home island. It is not always easy especially during the off season of digging and diving. I try to buy ivory 1-2 times every other month.
5. There are many that believe Native people should not be allowed to use ivory due to ethical reasons . How important is it that you are able to and be allowed to create with this medium?
The first nations' peoples have been living off of the land since the beginning of time. Our island specifically live off the greens and berries found in the island tundra, and what the Bering Sea provides us with such as sea vegetables, seaweed and the many sea animals it is absolutely necessary to hunt to SURVIVE. we were provided with one store in our village that is rarely stocked and is sometimes difficult to get any groceries to. A lot of the food provided to us is frozen, canned, and processed. Our traditional food feeds more than one family, it feeds more than one village and lasts longer than any grocery store items. The environment we live in, we are unable to grow produce due to the harsh conditions and long and dark winters. Hunting these animals, we respect and thank them. They provide for our people. Not only is the meat harvested to survive but so is the material. Seal skin to survive the weather, ivory is traditionally used to make tools, toys (they are still being made) and jewelry or regalia, and pelts or coats to make warm clothing. Most of the product is not used for monetary profit but it is used to live in the conditions we do. It is so important because it is our culture. It is necessary. It is our way of life.
6. As a native woman, what is your biggest struggle in running your business (specifically "native inspired" competition, sexism, racism, etc.)
There are few but not very many native Women are known to carve ivory or whalebone. Most are known for sewing, beading or creating traditional regalia. When it came to introducing my work in person to several galleries, the first few buyers would come across as visibly shocked saying bluntly, "you're so pretty for a native girl" or "whats a pretty woman like you carving?" "where are the men artists from your island" "did you have help?" "you did this yourself?" and this was only the beginning. I knew when I started this it wasn't common because my father told me, "not even a lot of men carve anymore." and relatives would say "you beat the men on the island to it. It's awesome." I think the hardest thing I've heard was, "I can't believe that YOU would make this, you're too pretty. Not what you expect" Like my talents were dwindled down to my fleeky brows and ability to apply a blended contour. They didn't see me as an artist, they didn't see my work that way." It wasn't until they asked my name, the demeanor of some of these buyers would completely changed. They would see my last name written on their checks, and ask, "so you know Ron Apangalook?" I would answer, "yes he's" my father." Then they would believe in my work because of I was the daughter of a well known artist in this industry. They would change their mind about my work in an instant.
When it comes to competing against other non-native artist who create native-inspired or "bohemian work," I still try to remain as true to myself as possible. I still believe people look for authenticity in traditional work. I have come across several artists who are non-native that profit off of their native inspired work. I feel that the only people that should be profiting off of these styles are our people. Our culture and sacred traditions continue to be taken from us and it's also a driving point for me to continue to carry such a sacred tradition and staying true to it and allowing it to speak for itself.
Racism in this industry is still very much alive. Racism in this country is still very much alive. There are no positive words I can say except if we continue to reclaim our culture and dig at our roots, there is no amount of hatred that can erase us. I really hope it shows in my work, it is an honor to continue something so sacred in using these materials and respecting the animals they come from. The animals that allow us to survive.
7. Why is it important for people outside of native culture to avoid copying/creating Native art?
It is important that non-native people avoid copying or creating "native inspired" work because not only were the lands taken from us, but our regalia, our traditions, our work now also reflects that. It is harmful because our history and culture is continually trying to be erased or claimed by non-native people for profit. It almost comes off to me as their work that is ripped off of our traditions, that we are no longer important or whats important and sacred to us doesn't matter. It's crushing seeing native inspired work, but I am given these opportunities to speak about it so I hope people understand, it is harmful.
8. Does anything else inspire your work? Music, art, fashion, etc.?
I have always been inspired by the fashion industry and trends each year, because I am still very new at this and still figuring out who i am as an artist, I am sticking with simple ivory pieces but expanding the designs and varieties of chain and material to hang the ivory on. I do believe ivory jewelry is timeless and is very versatile in styling it and I don't think it has any limits if I keep it simple and make it my own. I don't think there is a certain style or specific trend that it is limited to. I think another thing that inspires my work is the food we traditionally eat (mangtak ivory and the ulaaq earrings I make)
9. What are your dreams for your business? What do you see in the future?
I can tell you right now when I started this I had absolutely NO idea where this jewelry would lead me to. The opportunity it would give me to make connections with people all over and the impact it would leave with not only indigenous women, but women all over. I feel with each person that buys this I accomplish so much because people see me and they see the work that goes into this jewelry. I just hope to continue to grow and finally figure myself out as an artist and the potential it has to expand my brand and people to remember it by name and not my instagram handle. I am hoping Mother + Child jewelry will continue to make the impact it has and grow more of a following and possibly lead me to collaborations like this. I would have never dreamed to meet as many strong and supportive women and I never really heard "I'm proud of you." until this little business took off. My dreams are already coming true and like I said, I have absolutely no idea where this is taking me but I do love taking it day by day and appreciating the connections it has led me to.
10. Where Can people shop for your jewelry?
It has been a very long time, as the tourist season won't get busy until summertime, since I have been able to sell to any galleries. I am completely sold out at ANMC, Arctic treasures and I am not actually sure how inventory is at Once in a Blue Moose. But I do believe you can still find some of my pieces at the Captain Cook Hotel and a couple places in Talkeetna. Other than that, I have my instagram page which is the main source of my work and where to purchase it.
11. Can you share any other Native artists' accounts/shops/names so we can continue shopping native made?
I am starting to collect indigenous and native-made artwork so here is a list of people I have bought from and people I am DYING to buy from.
Sunandseaencasings - my cousin!
oliver.hartvigson (makes ivory and wood rings)
(I'm sorry if I forget to list anyone else, you all truly inspire me.)
Where to Shop:
Aurora Borealis Gallery (captain cook)
ANMC craft shop
Lisa sells most of her pieces on her Instagram page but be forewarned, they go FAST. The key is to watch her stories to see when she’s going to drop more and snag it! I’ve watched them sell out within 20 minutes, ah!
If you’re local and would like to be featured on the blog (it’s free!), please go to the link below and fill out the form. I plan to feature one artist/business per month and would love to get you on my calendar!