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'Aggravated Organizms' art show confronts Alaska's most pressing diseases

Laurel Andrews
Aggravated Organizms is a collaborative art project by Alaska Native artists Drew Michael and Elizabeth Ellis, opening June 21 at Out North. The 10 large masks each explore a different disease, from Hepatitis to Alzheimer's. June 6, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Aggravated Organizms is a collaborative art project by Alaska Native artists Drew Michael and Elizabeth Ellis, opening June 21 at Out North. The 10 large masks each explore a different disease, from Hepatitis to Alzheimer's. June 6, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Aggravated Organizms is a collaborative art project by Alaska Native artists Drew Michael and Elizabeth Ellis, opening June 21 at Out North. The 10 large masks each explore a different disease, from Hepatitis to Alzheimer's. June 6, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Aggravated Organizms is a collaborative art project by Alaska Native artists Drew Michael and Elizabeth Ellis, opening June 21 at Out North. The 10 large masks each explore a different disease, from Hepatitis to Alzheimer's. June 6, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Aggravated Organizms is a collaborative art project by Alaska Native artists Drew Michael and Elizabeth Ellis, opening June 21 at Out North. The 10 large masks each explore a different disease, from Hepatitis to Alzheimer's. June 6, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Aggravated Organizms is a collaborative art project by Alaska Native artists Drew Michael and Elizabeth Ellis, opening June 21 at Out North. The 10 large masks each explore a different disease, from Hepatitis to Alzheimer's. June 6, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Aggravated Organizms is a collaborative art project by Alaska Native artists Drew Michael and Elizabeth Ellis, opening June 21 at Out North. The 10 large masks each explore a different disease, from Hepatitis to Alzheimer's. June 6, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Aggravated Organizms is a collaborative art project by Alaska Native artists Drew Michael and Elizabeth Ellis, opening June 21 at Out North. The 10 large masks each explore a different disease, from Hepatitis to Alzheimer's. June 6, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Aggravated Organizms is a collaborative art project by Alaska Native artists Drew Michael and Elizabeth Ellis, opening June 21 at Out North. The 10 large masks each explore a different disease, from Hepatitis to Alzheimer's. June 6, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Aggravated Organizms is a collaborative art project by Alaska Native artists Drew Michael and Elizabeth Ellis, opening June 21 at Out North. The 10 large masks each explore a different disease, from Hepatitis to Alzheimer's. June 6, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Aggravated Organizms is a collaborative art project by Alaska Native artists Drew Michael and Elizabeth Ellis, opening June 21 at Out North. The 10 large masks each explore a different disease, from Hepatitis to Alzheimer's. June 6, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Aggravated Organizms is a collaborative art project by Alaska Native artists Drew Michael and Elizabeth Ellis, opening June 21 at Out North. The 10 large masks each explore a different disease, from Hepatitis to Alzheimer's. June 6, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Aggravated Organizms is a collaborative art project by Alaska Native artists Drew Michael and Elizabeth Ellis, opening June 21 at Out North. The 10 large masks each explore a different disease, from Hepatitis to Alzheimer's. June 6, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Aggravated Organizms is a collaborative art project by Alaska Native artists Drew Michael and Elizabeth Ellis, opening June 21 at Out North. The 10 large masks each explore a different disease, from Hepatitis to Alzheimer's. June 6, 2013
Loren Holmes photo

Editor's Note: "Aggravated Organizms" made it debut at Out North Contemporary Art House earlier this summer. Now, it will be the highlight of the Alaska Native Arts Foundation First Friday event in downtown Anchorage on Friday. This article originally appeared on June 20, 2013.

On a cloudless Sunday morning, Artist Liz Ellis eyed a four-foot mask leaning against the wall in her home. Carved from bass wood by collaborator Drew Michael, Ellis was preparing to paint it with an abstract representation of one of Alaska’s most prevalent diseases.

She had already painted seven masks, with diseases ranging from diabetes, cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis, to fetal alcohol syndrome. Three remained – HIV, mental illness, and alcoholism.

“The last ones are going to be the hardest,” she said.

Ellis’ cousin committed suicide 18 months earlier. “Alcohol was involved," she said. "He wasn’t happy.”

The art show by Michael and Ellis is called "Aggravated Organizms," and it confronts the most prevalent and sensitive diseases in Alaska, asking the viewer to engage in a conversation about a subject often seen as sensitive or taboo.

“People have been at my house crying,” Michael said. “You can look at all the pieces and say that’s my mom, that’s my aunt, that’s me.”

The show consists of ten 4-foot masks mounted on metal frames. Both artists call the collaboration the biggest project of their careers – in the scale of the work, the potential partnerships, and the impact they hope it will have on Alaska. And the more they work on the project, the more they find themselves wrapped up in the questions that it poses.

“I’ve been thinking about my life based on the show,” Michael said. Members of his family have battled cancer and mental illness, and when he looks at the pieces, he sees them.

In many ways, health is a choice, Michael said. He can either “basically self-destruct, or find a way to move forward and be healthy.”

“The choice is so important.”

The artists also see how the diseases intertwine and affect each other. For instance, alcoholism causes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and influences mental illness. The diseases “start to stem together,” Ellis said.

“It was interesting to watch that evolve in the masks,” she added.

The idea for the show was first sparked by a documentary Michael watched about cells in the body. He began to develop a concept, thinking about how disease correlates to environment.

“Our cells change and are manipulated by outside sources,” he said. 

Ellis and Michael had collaborated once before, on a face-sized mask that Ellis displays proudly in her home, decorated with metal feathers on the forehead and a painting of mountains and abstract salmon on the chin and face.

When Michael approached her about working together on Aggravated Organizms, they decided, “how about we just go larger? Let’s explode with it,” Ellis said. They also drew influence from renown Alaska artist John Hoover, who created many large works for public spaces.

Michael carves the masks and hands them over to Ellis with complete trust, he said. “It’s not even about my work anymore – it’s just a canvas,” he said.

Ellis’ paintings are abstract representations of how the cells appear under microscope when afflicted with the given disease. She researches the disease, thinks about it and then “I just start it,” she said.

The project has spanned three months of developing the idea, and six weeks of working on the pieces.

Both hope that the work will spark conversations often left unsaid in Alaska. “We’re telling a story in a bigger picture,” Ellis said. Each work is accompanied by a statement about the disease and how it relates to Alaska, written by friend Bryan Fierro. For instance:

"In Alaska, diabetes is ever growing in the Native population, with incident rates higher than any other group. Similar to that of a cold late Alaskan spring, the process appears dormant. And where the Yukon-Kuskokwim river ice flow is denied its natural and cyclical progression of melt, once-calm ice is forced into upheaval, damaging both community and expectation."

Having such high hopes for the project’s impact leaves them “a little overwhelmed,” Michael said. Both have been plagued with waves of doubt.

“It’s such a challenge,” Ellis said. “That’s why it’s important to me.”

To Michael, the resources available after the show are even more important than the pieces themselves. They hope to partner with medical associations to help promote the work, which would be able to display the pieces in their facilities and offer follow-up information to viewers. They also have support from the Rasmuson Foundation to bring the show around the state.

If the project, a package of all 10 pieces, is sold, 10 percent of the money will go to charity.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com