By Darren “HarpDaddy” Smith
Once again, I find myself researching a story that I’m compelled to write after seeing numerous social media postings, along with local news reports, regarding an investigation into the previous owner of Arctic Treasures LLC, Lee John Screnock. It’s really starting to piss me off. I had been into Arctic Treasures, an art gallery on 4th Avenue in Anchorage, a few times about 10 years ago. I’d go in with Tsimshian master carver Frank Perez to sell his hand carved masks and paddles. Frank is one-of-a-kind and so is his work. He would come over to our house, sit and carve for hours and we would laugh. He would tell us old stories, like the time when he met Jim Morrison in Los Angeles during the heyday of the Doors and during Frank’s art school days. Apparently, Morrison didn’t care too much for Frank, “cause I was too good looking,” he’d say, and we would laugh.
Frank would prefer it that I would run him around downtown Anchorage to help sell his pieces, partially because I would most likely be wearing a suit, playing hooky for a few hours in between corporate sales calls to help him recover his tools, sell his work, and then maybe sneak a beer at The Pio or The Avenue. He could get more cash from the local shop owners and galleries when I was with him. He was right. I bear witness. “The biggest, whitest guy I could find,” he’d call me. He told tell me about the times when he was hitting it pretty hard and how little he got for his pieces from the downtown shop owners; solely because he was in that compromised state.
So I sat down with intent as I researched this story. The allegations are that Arctic Treasures LLC, previous owner Lee John Screnock, had “fraudulently represented hundreds of items for sale in his business as being carved by Alaskan Native artisans; when he had, in fact, carved them himself.” The indictment further alleges that Screnock violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act by “knowingly offering illegal wildlife parts for sale, including a polar bear skull and a walrus oosik.” If convicted, Screnock faces a maximum of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
So I reached out to a number of my Alaska Native artist friends and asked them how this ‘practice’ impacts them; how it feels when someone steals their identity, culture, symbols, stories, and songs; and then capitalize from it. My eagerness to tell that story must wait for a minute though, because that is not what impacted me as I dove deeper into my research. I ran across a Facebook posting by a young carver named Kyle Pungowiyi that is currently producing out of Arctic Treasures.
So I arranged to meet up with new owner of Arctic Treasures, LLC, Leon Kinneeveauk after reading this post. I figured there had much more to report about than just the negative impact of Mr Screnock’s actions. Leon has owned the store since June 2018. He emphasized prior to our meeting that, “everything in question was removed from the shop before my ownership, by the authorities and that we have Alaska Native artists carving in our shop now to show the validity of our product.”
I walked into Arctic Treasures last Saturday evening as Leon was interacting with three ladies at the front sales counter. The ladies were dripping with deep southern ‘charm’ as they purchased a number of pieces. “Pardon us… we are buying out the store,” they guffawed. I also observed a guy leaning over a display case full of knives. After waiting on the ladies, Leon then chats with the young man for a minute. His potential customer points to a knife. Leon looks up at him, straight into his sunglass-covered eyes, “You be good and I’ll give it to you. I know you can’t promise to me that you can stay out of jail; but just… be… good.” He then asked for him to inscribe it. The young man, as I later find out had done time in prison with Leon.
It was obvious to me what Leon meant to this man. I realize this story is now heading in a completely new and better direction. However, it really started to upset me that the local news reports had discussed the allegations against the previous owner, but they were very slow to update that there was a new owner, an Inupiaq carver from Point Hope. On top of that, I was seeing quite a bit of negative social media commentary towards the shop and the carvers currently producing on-site.
We get a minute to sit down at Leon’s desk overlooking 4th Avenue. I see in his eyes that he knows this dance that is going down in front of us. His gaze remains toward the street action. “I see a lot of young kids running down this street, back and forth, and I try to connect with them,”
he recalls. “I lived here (Anchorage) when I was nine. My dad would drive us up and down this street and he would tell us that these are your people right here and you could end up like that real easily. Homeless. Drunk. You need to be really aware of your influences in life.”
I ask Leon about his influences and what started him down his path as an artist. He tells me, “It was my uncle, Jacob Lane. He sat me down when I was seven and gave me a piece of soapstone. I’d be running around my grandpa. Jacob Lane Sr.’s house and he said, ‘Hey… sit down here and he gave me a file and said, I want you to carve that,’ pointing to a seal he had carved. It turned out pretty good and it kinda lit a spark in me.” Another big influence in high school was Chester Frankson, they called him ‘Silook.’ “He got us into working with raw, native material, rather than shop wood.”
Kinneeveauk then nods toward a group of kids, “I went through my struggle right here. I was a drunk on the street. I got picked up by CSP about 20 years ago. I had an overdose in front of the 515 Club.” In 2005, Kinneeveauk pled no contest to a second degree murder that happened two years earlier, just blocks from where we are now sitting.
“This place; it became evident to me that I was brought back for a reason. This is where I need to be. I know we can’t help everybody out here. It’s a struggle. To sit here and see some of the people walking by constantly. Back and forth. Addiction. Mental illness. Homelessness. But when you look past that and look at the person, you see something else there.”
I ask Leon about what his mission at the shop is. He replies, “I’m trying to provide stability, a place for them (his carvers) to get back on their feet. Most of my guys struggle. I struggle too. Everyday. But when I’m here; I’m fine. I connect with the guys. I carved for a few years in my own shop, but it wasn’t the same. When I’m around these guys, it helps me to balance out. It’s an interesting dynamic what we have going on with the guys in the back”
The ‘back’ that Leon talks about is the carving facility that is in the rear of Arctic Treasures, behind a wall with large windows. Potential buyers can witness that authentic carvers are doing all of the work for sale and can meet the carvers that produce the work. “Our next step is to create a non-profit in the back; bring awareness to the corporations that we have guys back here that are living in hotels, living on somebody’s couch. We’ve given them a place to carve and a meal. The next step is to try to get them into housing.”
Leon then introduces me to Clayton Gottschalk. Clayton is helping Arctic Treasures attain non-profit status; to help fund what is going on ‘out back’. The organization will be known as the Alaska Arts Alliance, in which Gottschalk will be the director and Kinneeveauk its president.
Gottschalk explained the Alliance’s mission like this: “To help provide a place and an environment to allow an individual a sense of accomplishment, that when they get out (of jail) they are doing something proactive for themselves. When they go and apply for other programs, it is so much a bureaucratic process that a person gets frustrated. To help alleviate that frustration would go a long way. We want to do our part, too, because we’ve been there. We are at Ground Zero. Let’s use what we have experienced already and try to be a solution. Most people that suffer from addictions are highly intelligent people.”
Clayton, looking like a man on a mission, had to run off so I sit back down with Leon for a bit. I ask him about what really sparked this idea. He replied, “When I was incarcerated, I sobered up, 16 years ago. I had become a victim in my own mind. I thought everybody owed me everything. If you weren’t native, you owed me something. Once I pushed the addiction away my mind slowly came around. I helped run the Native Culture in Alaska, Colorado, Arizona and then back to Alaska. The concept was to form a different kind of native (prison) culture. One based around drumming, potlatching, talking circles; to create a new way of thinking based on everyday living in the community. It morphed into something that was important to a lot of guys.”
While incarcerated in Seward, Leon recalls, “I ran the hobby shop there, the tool crib, did my own artwork. I noticed the guys that were in the shop; they felt a sense of well-being. A sense of balance in their lives again. They could send their artwork back home and have their family sell it.”
He points out, “A lot of creativity comes out of the guys under incarceration. Sometimes that is the only way that they can express themselves. That was my way of expressing myself, too.”
When Leon got out of prison he headed to sell his pieces around town with little success. That was when he walked into Arctic Treasures and Mr. Screnock bought a piece. Screnock let him know that he knew a few of the artists from Point Hope and that he had a space to rent if he was interested. Leon went on to carve for a few months in the basement of Arctic Treasures. A year later he came back to carve for “a couple of months before I bought the place, not knowing that I was going to buy the place.”
When Screnock offered the business to Leon, “It was either me or the bar owner next door.”
After taking over ownership, he wanted to start bringing in artists. The challenge was how to find good, established ones to come in. “I put the word out on the street that we had space and it started to fill up,” Leon said. “ I started to realize that a lot of these guys had nothing — starting from zero.” So Leon went out and bought the tools, materials, and waived the $300 per month space rental charge. He also fed them.
He runs a tight ship. “I have zero tolerance for alcohol, drugs, stealing, no copying other people’s work. They have to abide by Fish & Game rules. I’ve had to kick a couple guys out…”
I asked him if he sees that the artists are motivated by this opportunity and stay sober and healthy? “Yeah, they see that it is possible. I was in their shoes. I was chasing my addictions all up and down this street. I was acting lost,” Kinneeveauk said. “I try to stay out of the back as much as possible and let them run it as much as they can by themselves; give them a sense of responsibility and trust. I think that’s what they like the most. The main thing I try to do with these guys is to give them a sense of ownership.”
He goes on to tell me that there are four master carvers in the back “and we look to them for guidance. We help each other out. It is hand-to-mouth back there. These guys have to make enough so they can eat. Not only do we have guys carving in the back, but we have guys that go around and sell.” A salesforce. “We’ve got to revamp how a shop is run to get through the winter.”
“It’s still in its infancy and everyday it is something different. There is no blueprint for this.
I’d like to see other places like this, in other parts of Alaska. In the villages where there is a lot of idle time. They used to have Men’s Houses. You’d have a Men’s House and a Women’s House. They would be working on stuff. — telling stories, teaching the youth.”
“I grew up in Point Hope. I used to watch the older men, the whale hunters — my uncles and grandfather, and they were strong. When you looked into their faces you saw something different. There was no addiction there. There was purpose. A purpose to provide and make sure that the community was OK.”
I ask him how he is able to heal and forgive himself for what he has done? It gets a little quiet for a minute as he thinks about it. “It’s something that I feel that I have to do. Part of it is me redeeming myself and doing right. There is a death in my past; I have to answer for that. That’s the deepest part of it all. I HAVE to have purpose.” he said. “I think the guilt is gone, but I know there is an energy that this person has out there. I have to make sure that my energy is right with everything.”
I ask Leon to walk me through the back to show me the artists and the carving stations. I grab a minute to sit down with one of the artists, Shavonne Geffe, an Inupiaq carver originally from Kotzebue. She informs me that after being adopted by her uncle, she ended up in Glennallen.
“My birth mother was an alcoholic. She drank herself to death. She had five daughters all adopted out. I struggle with alcohol and it got me in trouble. I had to find a way to be busy while being a stay-at-home mom, so, I started making jewelry,” Shavonne said. “I use a lot of natural things — seal gut, ivory, oosiks — I wire wrap artifacts and jade. I try to use as much authentically Alaskan materials and try to stick to things that I’ve carved myself.”
I ask her what compelled her to become an artist? She replies, “I never thought about being an artist growing up. When I was in Glennallen, with Ahtna Athabaskans, we did little beaded earrings and that got started me while in high school.“ she said. “I’m a stay-at-home mom with six kids. I needed to do something. A few of my friends were making earrings, so about six years ago I started making jewelry and selling them around town.”
I then asked her what got her involved with carving. She lights up a little. “I love rocks and stones. I would buy some of the guys ivory pieces to put it into my jewelry and I decided that I could carve it myself. Then a few years ago, I bought a bandsaw and started to carve ivory on my own.”
I was interested in how she became associated with Leon. “I met Leon a few years ago at the (Alaska Native) Heritage Center. I’d see him around and he knew I did my own carving, so one day I dropped by and he gave me the rundown.” She continues, “I think it is really awesome. The other carvers give me little tips here and there. I’ve learned a bit more on how to use the tools. To have somewhere safe to carve. Where I don’t feel like I should know everything. It feels like family.”
Shavonne goes on, “I feel like when I do art; my identity is revealed. I’m not my past. I’m not my record. I am finding my identity within myself. I was created by my creator to create good things. I’ve just gotta find out what those things are. It’s like a second chance to show who I really am.”
“A lot of us struggle with getting a full time job. A lot of us have records. To have somewhere I can go and make art. Meet people. To be able to go out and be successful, make money, and be able to provide for my kids. It makes me feel like I have a purpose,” Shavonne said.
She takes a minute to catch a breath and continues. “Being a Mom gives me purpose, but to be able to have a hope for the future — I feel a pride in my work and it’s pretty awesome meeting people from all over the world and knowing that there will be a little piece of my art in New Zealand.”
I ask her what her kids think about her work.
“My 12-year old daughter, Anjula, comes to the Heritage Center and she eventually wants to learn how to carve too. She does a little scrimshaw on the pieces that I carve and she makes her own earrings and sells with me. They love it.”
I then asked her if she has taken any classes recently, she replies, “I did get to meet Susie Silook. Silook is a Yupik/Inupiaq sculptor, well respected for her intricate and elaborate ivory work. I took a two-week class from her at the Heritage Center. That was pretty awesome. It gave me a brighter outlook on my future. Just talking to her and seeing the kind of stuff that she does made me think more about the spirituality part of carving and the meaning behind the work that I make. Seeing the pride that she takes in her work just really got me thinking about future projects.”
Where does she see her work taking her? “I hope to do this full time and do bigger pieces. I have a passion for it. It takes a lot of time and money. Hopefully, I can have a real business doing it. I have people that collect my things. They like my style and I just want to do more of it.”
I had to ask her what she thought about the previous owner allegedly selling his non-native work as representing it as native-carved. I let her know of a recent case in New Mexico where gallery owners were busted for selling $11,000,000 in counterfeits, directly taking money, food, and livelihood away from artists like her.
“I’m Inupiaq and even within the different native cultures we respect each other’s own cultures and we do art from within our own cultural heritage,” she said. “Out of respect, I feel like it is not really just a rip off, but it is a pretty big slap in the face.”
On my way out of the store, I stop over and thank Leon. I ask him what his longer range plans are. He replies, “In 10 years I’d like to walk away from this, be with my family, carve on my own property. I spent 12 years in prison and the only time I’d left Alaska I was shackled up with other prisoners to go to Arizona or Colorado. I’d like to go to South America” and he goes on to mention about ten other destinations.
One last question as I’m hitting the door. I ask him, “Have you thought about changing the name of the shop due to the recent controversy?” He looks at me, shaking my hand firmly and tells me, “No way. I’m accountable for my past and I face it directly. Just like this store has to.”
On Monday evening, the Arc of Anchorage awarded Leon Kinneeveauk, the Arc Angel award. A representative from the Arc informed me that he was awarded this due to his selfless acts, pointing out his “no judgement stance” with the participants in his program. She also informed me that Leon is donating a percent of his sales to the SPARC program. SPARC is an art studio and gallery, in downtown Anchorage, at 425 D Street. SPARC provides a professional studio space with dedicated facilities that include ceramics, stained glass, painting, beading, and printmaking.
I think Susie Silook put it best when I asked her about the work Leon and his crew is doing. She replied, “We’ve been a witness to hope in some long tired faces.”