For two artists dwelling on death and decay for the last year, Drew Michael and Elizabeth Ellis seem to be pretty happy people. They crack up over stories and bounce ideas off each other, sometimes completing or changing the other's train of thought. Their first collaborative effort, "Aggravated Organizms," includes 10 masks, each four or five feet tall, representing the 10 most pervasive diseases amongst Alaskans, including cancer, diabetes, and alcoholism. Michael carved the masks and Ellis painted the abstract (and breathtaking) interpretations of what a crippled cell looks like under a microscope.
The results are a fresh and cathartic look at daily problems facing Alaskans, on display through August at the Alaskan Native Arts Foundation gallery. The title "Aggravated Organizms" refers to the masks and to people themselves whose cells transfigure on contact with these viruses. ("Organizms" is spelled with Z because, as the duo agrees, "it's cooler!").
The project began with a practical concern: Out North invited Ellis to exhibit some art last year, and she needed something big enough to command a large space. Ellis is primarily a figurative painter; before painting these masks, the largest canvas she ever worked with was a skateboard. She thought Michael might be able to help her meet the challenge.
"I asked him if we should go bigger, because he does normal-sized masks," Ellis said. Michael agreed to the ambitious project, and they began to brainstorm about what issues affect Alaska. They settled on health, specifically disease, knowing that they could be impacted at any time by a catalog of diseases.
"We're all affected by it," Michael said. "Alaska is such a small community."
During their brainstorming, Michael recalled a documentary he'd seen about how diseases transform human cells. "I loved the imagery of how cells looked under a microscope," Michael said.
This became the inspiration for using the 10 illnesses and diseases in Alaska, and portraying them somehow.
Michael started carving the masks in the winter and completed the last one this summer. For Ellis, each mask took roughly a week to research, sketch, and paint. "The masks soaked up a lot of paint, and drying... I literally watched paint dry," Ellis said.
Ellis lives in Indian and Michael lives in Anchorage, so they met halfway throughout the project to exchange the goods. Ellis gave Michael the finished masks to keep in Anchorage, Michael gave her blank masks to paint in Indian. They attracted many a stare transferring these masks in a parking lot. At interview time, the masks were in storage, "or mom's house," Ellis said.
Each mask is lightweight, with large eyeholes to facilitate carrying. Ellis and Michael said they think of each mask more as a canvas, and the heart of the story as the paint.
"These masks are asymmetrical, contemporary, more Yup'ik with lots of personality. The story really isn't in the form but in the paint," Michael said
Michael and Ellis hope the stories will galvanize others as much as it did them.
"With me, after painting them I am much more comfortable talking about (illness) in art. It's so much easier to talk about here. Whereas with science, in a doctor's office, you get all stiff and don't want to talk about it, but when it's here you want to make a story about it. It's definitely a conversation starter," Ellis said.
Michael and Ellis are part of a tight-knit group of Alaska Native artists who are trying to balance the contemporary, mainstream art scene with their own roots to make intellectually honest and visually powerful works.
Michael is a founding member of "Diaspora," a collection of Native artists from eight tribal groups.
"This generation is collaborating," Michael said. "We're all about collaboration and working together as a community. I think before it was a little bit more separated."
"Natives back in the day, we always kept to each other, we didn't really talk about our feelings, our expressions, and a lot of Alaskan Natives are still quiet. And I can see that-that's how we were raised. Now we're trying to open up, and now a lot of people are seeing, Oh yeah, Natives are pretty cool," said Ellis.
The works of their predecessors, like Aleut artist John Hoover, were a major inspiration for this exhibit. Hoover's sculptures are featured throughout the city, including "Volcano Woman" in the Egan Center.
"That's where this show came from," Michael said. "We love his style. He has really cool imagery. He did things people weren't doing at the time. He's a great example for us."
Of Alutiiq descent, Ellis grew up in Cordova. Though five months pregnant, Ellis summoned the fortitude to wake at 6:30 a.m. and drive from Indian to an 8 a.m. interview Monday morning. Born in Bethel, Michael is of Inupiat and Yup'ik descent. He was adopted as a toddler to an Eagle River family, and began carving in high school. Michael has had the good fortune of learning from world-renowned carvers like Kathleen Carlo-Kendall, the Athabascan carver, and the Inupiat artist Joe Senungetuk. He is also a good friend with Hoover's daughter, Anna.
The masks will travel around Alaska, sometimes to be exhibited, sometimes to participate in dance festivals.
"I think (masks) have been used as just pieces on the wall, and I'm trying to move them away from the wall. That's why we put them all on stands so they have more life. I don't want them to be static, and I'm really trying to get that message out. These things are alive, they tell a story, and these stories are relevant," Michael said.
"Our goal is to travel all over the state," Ellis said.
The masks will make stops at Juneau's Tlingit dance festival and the Cama-i dance festival in Bethel, to name a few. Ellis and Michael plan to partner with the musical group Pamyua, who will use the masks in some of their performances.
Michael is especially excited to see these masks integrated in dance performances.
"It justifies the whole purpose of making these things," Michael said. "It's like, they're alive-go be free!"