Sylvester Ayek

2004 Distinguished ArtistVisual ArtsAward Amount: $25,000

2004 Distinguished Artist Award

Sylvester Ayek’s childhood on King Island, Alaska, formed him. On this remote, rocky piece of land in the Bering Sea, Ayek learned the Iñupiaq subsistence lifestyle. Harvesting walruses, seals and birds and watching his father’s respectful use of every part of the animal led Ayek to learn ivory carving. Creating beautiful items from tusk and tooth was an extension of subsistence living, a way to honor the animals and to make money for basic supplies. There was no cash on King Island. Instead, residents traded artwork for sugar, tea and other Western goods at the local store. When Ayek was 12, the village school closed, and his family left King Island. Since then, he has lived mostly in Anchorage and Nome. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Alaska Pacific University. Because it was difficult to find paid employment, Ayek worked to develop his carving, making more intricate and diverse pieces.

Sylvester Ayek was Rasmuson Foundation’s first Distinguished Artist, named in 2004.Photograph by Sven Haakanson.

Today, Ayek lives in Nome and visits King Island regularly. Subsistence harvesting fills most of his days, although he carves ivory and wood when he can. Balancing the daily demands of living from the land with artistic practice is difficult. The Distinguished Artist Award provided Ayek with the opportunity to create a studio space in his home.