By Dottie Indyke
When Othniel “Art” Oomittuk shows pictures of his masks to friends in northern Alaska, their faces light with recognition. This looks just like so-and-so, they say, reciting the name of a mutual friend. But Oomittuk’s intention is not to depict anyone in particular— the visages come directly from his imagination. And they are as alive as wooden faces could ever be. The masks are made of cedar, redwood, oak, sugar pine, Indonesian woods, or myrtle wood sanded to a sheen. And they are detailed with perfectly formed teeth carved from walrus ivory and piercing eyes made of baleen, the hoof-like material that grows inside a whale’s mouth. The finished products stare frankly at viewers with bemused expressions of inner knowing.
Oomittuk’s artistic gift is in his genes. A beginner six years ago, when he was in his early 30s, he is entirely self-taught, though as a boy he’d watch his grand-father cut and carve masks from whale bone. From the outset, his goal was to make likenesses of his Iñupiaq ancestors, and he worked without the benefit of models other than himself. “Then I found out from a curator at the Anchorage Museum that my images are almost exactly the same as images that were carved 500 years ago in the same area that I was born,” he says. “I don’t know how to explain it.”
He was born in Point Hope, AK, a traditional Eskimo village teetering on land’s edge more than 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle. When he was 9, the family moved practically to the top of the world, to Barrow. With its population of a few thousand, the town seemed a bustling metropolis to the youngster. In the round-the-clock daylight of summer, he would head out onto the tundra, sometimes for days on end, to hunt lemmings and scout snowy owl nests.
He opted to attend Western Oregon University rather than schools closer to home because he wanted to make it difficult for himself to drop out. Originally intent on becoming an art teacher, it only took a year to succumb to the pleasures of hands-on art-making in ceramics, photography, and prints.
Each summer he returned to Alaska, but after graduation he settled in Rainier, OR. After seven years of commuting more than 100 miles every day to his job in Portland, he decided, with the encouragement of longtime friend and Aleut artist Larry Ahvakana, to submit artwork to the Indian Art Northwest festival. He wasn’t at all sure what medium to work in until he happened upon a redwood burl. In four months, he carved three masks, one in redwood and two in yellow cedar.
“It was a slow process,” he recalls. “My first tools were straight chisels and wood rasps. The redwood burl was the most difficult because it wanted to splinter. I ended up doing some baleen inlays and used baleen for the eyes. I inlaid a whale tail on the side of the face. I got the ivory from a walrus I shot when I was in high school. I’m still using some of that ivory.”
Despite being pitted against the most talented carvers of the Northwest, he took first place that year and again in the subsequent two years. In 1997, he quit his job as a graphic designer. He has been carving ever since.
Recognition came almost immediately. Oomittuk was included in a show of indigenous artists from the Pacific Rim. Last year, he was one of eight Native American artists spotlighted in the Heard Museum’s invitational exhibit. The Portland Art Museum is featuring his pieces in a show of contemporary wood carvers, and his first bronze sculpture was selected for a public commission in Anchorage.
The success is welcome, though the 39-year-old remains true to his path, carving the slow way with small, nontraditional tools. “Right now I’m doing an oak burl that has been in process almost three years,” he says. “I take just a little off at a time and let it sit in the weather because I want it to look like it’s very old. I let the weather soften it because the oak is so hard.”
He eschews galleries, he explains, because of the pressure to produce in volume. “You can’t put a lot of life into a mask if you’re carving [for] production. I put a lot of feeling into my work, into the faces, and I like to show that expression. Some pieces I’ve worked on for weeks and weeks and don’t have them done. It all depends on the wood and where it wants to take me.”
Othniel Oomittuk’s work may be seen at Broadway Gallery in Longview, WA.
Featured in April 2003