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Alaska Native artist encourages audience to think outside the box

Trina Landlord
Courtesy Alaska Native Arts Foundation

Jim Miller is the featured First Friday artist for the month of October 2012 at the Alaska Native Arts Foundation in downtown Anchorage. His show, titled “Birds of a Feather,” represents his ancestry through culturally expressive woodcarvings.

Miller is of Yup’ik and Alutiiq heritage, born in Ketchikan, raised in Southeast Alaska and currently calling Port Graham home. His Yup’ik name is Ayalriitt, which means “the traveler in a spiritual way” when translated to English. He values Native stories and respect for one’s ancestors.

“As an artist and wood carver I am self-taught, but inspired by many,” Miller said. “Even as a beginning artist, I began teaching traditional woodcarving and sharing culture in Port Graham and other Native communities in southcentral Alaska. When teaching traditional woodcarving, I think of it as art therapy or men’s work. It has been an integral part of personal recovery work for some and community development.”

Miller’s path to becoming an artist has been a nontraditional one. He served in the Navy and worked in the logging and fishing industries, as well as working construction and tug boating. In 1986, he accepted a job as village alcoholism counselor for the Native Village of Port Graham, a community with a population of about 170 located in Southcentral Alaska at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula. He began carving as part of a curriculum for culturally relevant recovery activities.

Influential and prolific Tlingit artist Nathan Jackson -- most known for his totem poles -- inspired Miller to work above his capabilities and to reach the unattainable. Miller admires Jackson's work and observed it in totem parks in Southeast Alaska locations like Saxman, Hydaburg and Klawock. Miller appreciates the underlying meaning, messages and concepts of Jackson’s work -- for example, a pole that was redone of Abraham Lincoln, with a message about ending slavery.

In Miller’s work, he encourages young people to be proud of being Native, to be a human being. He addresses issues important to Alaska Natives, including boarding schools, blood quantum, and missionaries infiltrating rural communities. He also pushes boundaries of what fine art means in a Western sense.

A theme can be observed in Miller’s exhibit at ANAF. In his piece titled “Decolonization,” he depicts a mask enclosed within a box, encouraging the viewer to “think outside the box.” He indicates that it is a battle of the heart and mind to be genuine to yourself. Miller says that the piece is about the tension between boundaries of Western culture, which can constrain and restrict us, and that principles can be lost in translation. He also carves spoons, paddles, bowls and boxes, traditional hunting and fishing implements, and toys.

Miller says we are all spiritual beings and Native beliefs of spirits are seen as mythology and stories. He says to let go of beliefs that don’t serve us and to honor new, evolving cultural traditions.

Miller hopes what the viewer will see in his show is a different perspective of Native art. Miller’s decolonized art will be on view at the Alaska Native Arts Foundation in October.

Trina Landlord is the Executive Director of the Alaska Native Arts Foundation. She can be reached at trina(at)alaskanativearts.org