Monday, October 18, 2010

Artists' spaces in unusual places

It's a little known fact that the Viking Lounge on Front Street downtown, known for its karaoke and martinis, also houses a thriving artists' space. Upstairs, the scent of fresh-cut red and yellow cedar and alderwood leads to a small carving studio, located behind a door that reads, "Do not enter." The space is not open to the public.

Only a few carvers and artists are allowed to create here, said Viking owner Jack Tripp. In addition to the on-site carvers, about 18 artists check out supplies from the studio and work on their carvings at home, he said.

"Someone has to vouch for you - it's kind of an honor system because there's a lot of value in this shop," said Tripp, referring to the raw cedar and ivory kept under lock and key.

One Tlingit carver, Arthur Johnson, has worked pretty exclusively with Tripp over the last six years. Johnson creates scrimshaw, soapstone carvings and masks, as well as totem poles, gun grips, sketches, museum reproductions, canoes and items used in Native regalia.

"I make paddles, rattles, drums, box drums - anything Tlingit," Johnson said.

Johnson, 45, of the Kaagwaantaan in Hoonah, has six children, and has been carving and doing artwork since he was 9. The youngest of 11 children, Johnson is self-taught. He said he became interested in the artform after observing his teenage cousins carving, and now really enjoys what he does.

"I like coming to work every day, there is always something new," he said.

The carving shop is in use seven days a week, opening in the morning and closing as late as midnight. Other artists who use the space in addition to Johnson include Jason Vonda, Nick Vonda III, Dwain Price, Charles High, Browne Willard III and Milo Irish.

The artists' finished products have many different outlets, but the majority of their pieces go down the street to the Mount Juneau Trading Post, also owned by Tripp, where they are marketed to tourists and collectors.

Johnson says his most memorable piece was a legends canoe etched on a tusk commissioned by a collector.

"The look on her face and the hugs and tears said it all," he said. "It was really cool and that's what it's all about for me as an artist. We do this because we love to do it and because people really appreciate work done by Tlingits. Nobody likes to look on the bottom and see Bali or Indonesia."

In addition to Northwest Coast traditional art, Johnson is also called in to repair art knocked over by customers in the shop, a steady problem. The shop contains art made not only by Native Alaskan artists, but also by artists outside the state. Artwork made by Native Alaskans usually bears the Silver Hand symbol, featuring a silver hand and the words, "Authentic Native Handicraft from Alaska." Items made by Alaska residents who are not necessarily Native may bear a "Made in Alaska" sticker or emblem.

Tripp said that the artists who work out of the Viking space also supply the majority of the drums and paddles used in regalia for Southeast dance troupes.

"My wife is Tlingit, so she's immersed in the culture, and my daughters are dancers," Tripp said. "Her uncles are the Chiltons, who are the silver producers in town."

"We produce about 250 drums a year, an average of two drums every three days," he said. "It's a really weird niche market."

Producing art in bulk allows Tripp to focus on the expertise of each artist. For example, he may ask one artist to produce skins for the drums, and a different artist to paint them, according to dancers' specifications.

"We have blank drums, they tell us their crest and we can have it designed and made," Tripp said.

Tripp believes that by sharing the space and supplies, he is helping artists create work that might never have been attempted.

"Maybe they don't have the $50 to buy the piece of wood to make a paddle, then that piece of work never exists," he said.

Johnson agreed. "I don't have to pay for any of the materials, everything is provided for me, except for my knives, so we have no costs," he said. "Other artists have to put stuff on commission and hope that it sells that year and lose a large chunk of the profit. We don't have to worry about whether our stuff is going to sell or not. We are good at what we do and have been doing it for a long time."

A small totem pole will take Johnson about a week to finish, working eight hours a day. His scrimshaw pieces are also labor-intensive but he doesn't mind.

"I've been a tattoo artist for years, and crossing over from tattooing people to tattooing walrus tusks is about the same thing, but you don't have to worry about the walrus tusk moving, or saying 'ow' or bleeding all over you. It was a great transition for me."

Contact Courtney Nelson at

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