‘Who I Am Is Where I Am From’
For as long as he can remember, Earl Atchak has been an artist. The woodcarver is from Chevak in far Western Alaska, about a 50-minute flight from the Kuskokwim River hub of Bethel.
Growing up, he watched his grandfather, Joe Friday, sit on the floor, an axe in his hand, pound on a piece of wood. His grandfather was a Cup’ik dancer and mask maker. Ceremonial masks were central to the dancing. Each dance told a story. “He was born in a world we never knew, a very ancient world,” Atchak said.
Young Earl Atchak used to steal his father’s tools. He was never caught or scolded. His father just bought new tools to replace the ones he thought he had lost.
Then Atchak learned wood carving through his school’s cultural heritage program. “They told stories about the spiritual part of it,” he said. “A couple of us really took that in and became artists.”
They learned the correct way to carve, the difference between spruce and birch, what makes a mask and what doesn’t, but he never was an apprentice to anyone. “I just picked up this and picked up that.” He continued his studies in Juneau, Bethel and Fairbanks, but he always came back home to Chevak. He said, “I never got stuck someplace else. Who I am is where I am from.”
Chevak is surrounded by tundra, which is where Atchak goes for his well-being — to get away from phones and TV. “At camp,” he said, “even the radio hasn’t been on. We listen to the birds, exactly as my grandfather did.”
He snowgoes on the tundra or boats on the Ninglikfak River to get wood.
Each wood talks to the other and brags about what it will become: a harpoon, a mask used for dancing, or heat for a house. “I follow the direction of the wood. I may have a thought of what it should be,” he said, “but a lot of times I’m wrong. The wood will show me. It gets smaller and smaller until it becomes something. A walrus turns out to be a wolf, because of the grains.”
When Atchak has a commission to carve something specific, he said, “I’ll tell the wood, then we negotiate.”
He never buys wood. “The right wood is what my ancestors used. I never compromise the ways of my ancestors.”
This connection to the past is fed by Atchak’s experiences as a hunter, just as hunting feeds his family and his art. He collects spruce roots, bleached whale bones, caribou antlers, ptarmigan tail feathers, fox hair, driftwood.
“In March we go hunting for seal and walrus. From June through the summer, we’re at fish camp. On bad weather days, I make masks.” He collects “mouse food,” sweet roots that are good for soup. “They’re white, shaped like twigs and taste like walnuts.”
He used to share subsistence food with Rosalie Paniyak who lived across the street. Paniyak was known as the originator of the “Chevak doll,” with its distinctive characteristics and humorous expressiveness.
Atchak is also known for his dolls. Some of his dolls are so realistic “it would freak people out,” he said. He studies facial expressions, structure and cheek bones, how noses curve. He made a Lisa Murkowski doll right before she won her write-in campaign. He made a Steve Heimel doll to mark his retirement from public radio.
Atchak’s wife, Lisa Unin, sews the clothing for his dolls. She’s his partner in art, subsistence and sushi making, which is another story. Earl Atchak has lots of stories.