In a cluttered downtown Anchorage, Alaska workshop, Leon Misak Kinneeveauk pondered what to do with small walrus skull on an afternoon in late October.
“I think I’m gonna make a mask out of that,” he said.
Kinneeveauk owns Arctic Treasures, a gallery and the workshop attached to the back on Fourth Avenue. All around him, beside drills and sanders, were the raw supplies for his work: Piles of antlers, heaps of whale vertebrae, scraps of baleen crammed into jars. Much of the material is sourced from the coastal hunting communities where the shop’s stable of resident artists originally hail from: Point Hope, Gambell, Savoonga, Wainwright, and others.
At 48, Kinneeveauk is solidly built, sports two labret piercings beneath a mustache flecked with gray. He wears a necklace made of ivory beads the size of marbles, punctuated by polished polar bear claws that jut out across his broad chest. He spent years on the street, grappling with addiction, and eventually going to prison after a botched robbery led to a young man’s death. Carving, and giving other artists tools, material, and the chance to work in a safe, sober place, have given his life a sense of purpose since leaving prison in 2015. Many of the artists working in the shop are Alaska Native men living on the edge of homelessness. The business gives them a place to sell art that’s more dependable than sales on the street.
“I don’t consider myself a business owner,” Kinneeveauk said, sitting at his desk overlooking 4th Avenue. “I’m like the director of the place.”
The air inside the workshop is thick with the chalky smell of ivory dust. The carvers wear breathing masks as their tools whir. The Arctic Treasures shop sells primarily Alaska Native art, mostly made on site. More recently, Kinneeveauk established the Alaska Arts Alliance to incorporate the gallery and workshop into a nonprofit.
“We’re pretty much hand to mouth,” Kinneeveauk said. “I carve to pay bills and feed my family. These guys, they do the same thing, they carve to have a place to sleep, food to eat.”
Still, he also deals with all the headaches of running a business. His phone rings constantly. And it’s not a good time to be an ivory merchant: the years-long issue of several lower-48 states banning certain types of ivory has taken a toll on sales.
A space for struggling carvers
But what makes Kinneeveauk’s model stand out is that the workspaces are free for the 15 other carvers. In exchange for raw materials, artists will make one piece for the gallery, and keep one for themselves.
They have to follow the rules: no stealing, no alcohol or drugs. Some of the artists are master carvers with decades of experience. Some of the members are new to the craft, learning as they go. A few are non-Natives working with glass, stone, and antler (but no materials that would violate provisions in the Marine Mammal Protection Act).
“Some of these guys were whaling captains when they were in their village,” Kinneeveauk said. “They had a life before they came to the city. And they came here with good intentions. And, one thing leads to another, and some people are down on their luck.”
One of the men working in the shop is David Oksoktaruk, crafting a sculpture with pieces of stone, carved walrus ivory, feathers, and scraps of polar bear fur.
“It’s called ‘The Moon Spirit of the Wind.’”
Oksoktaruk grew up in White Mountain and Unalakleet in the Bering Strait Region, but in recent year lived in the state of Oklahoma, where his wife was from. After she passed, he moved back to Alaska, settling in Anchorage. He first stopped by the shop in September.
“I talked to one of the guys and he told me there was a space open,” Oksoktaruk said. “Gave me time to discover my new talent using whale bone.”
Oksoktaruk had a little bit of experience carving back when he was a young man newly out of repairing helicopters in the Army. But now he’s working with materials he’s never used before, learning new techniques and designs from other artists who share the space.
Kinneeveauk himself has not been carving long, and his past is a big part of why he’s committed to the endeavor. He was born into rough circumstances in the Northwest Arctic, and was sent to Point Hope to be raised by a family there.
“Life was good,” he said. “Got to watch all the hunting, the whaling. Be around good people.”
Leaving addiction behind
But when he was still a child Kinneeveauk began experimenting with alcohol and marijuana. By the time he was a young man, passions like art and whaling took a back seat to addiction. He spent a lot of time on the streets of Anchorage, and from his desk looking out the window he nods towards a nearby spot where he once overdosed, another where he was picked up after passing out on the sidewalk.
Then, in 2003, he was part of a robbery where another man shot and killed the cashier at a fast-food restaurant.
“I went to prison as an accomplice to a murder. A young man lost his life.”
Kinneeveauk pleaded no contest to second degree murder and was sentenced to 50 years, of which he served 12. He says prison saved his life. He got sober, educated, and reconnected with his passions. He was sent out of state to a facility in the state of Arizona, and his arms are covered in jailhouse tattoos depicting scenes from Arctic hunting.
“I got out in 2015, few hundred dollars in my pocket, couple pieces of baleen scrimshaw, couple carvings, and I ended up walking downtown trying to sell some of what I had,” Kinneeveauk said. “This was the only place that bought from me.”
He rented studio space from the former owner and began making more art. Around the time Lee John Screnock, the previous owner, began facing serious legal problems he sold the business to Kinneeveauk, who says the only other potential buyer was a bar.
Keeping the business afloat
Kinneeveauk sees his mission as giving people a place to work, be productive, provide for themselves, and find some respite from poverty, addiction, or whatever they are struggling with. Keeping the operation afloat, though, is not easy. With holiday markets and the shopping season coming up, Kinneeveauk hopes sales will pick up, and help keep him and his carvers in business.
The shop’s location matters a lot to him. He’s surrounded by dive bars, the city’s main homeless shelter, and the jail is down the road. Instead of retreating from an area fraught with painful memories, Kinneeveauk has immersed himself in it. He says it reminds him of where he’s been and what he owes to the carvers who share the space. And he wants to pay back the community that raised him.
“I’m a halfbreed, and those people cared for me when my mom had to give me up,” Kinneeveauk said. “Inupiaq people cared for me. (I’m) kinda obligated to make sure that I don’t forget where I came from and what they did for me.”
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: Passing of celebrated Inuit carver Barnabus Arnasungaaq marks end of era, Radio Canada International
Finland: Sámi school preserves reindeer herders’ heritage with help of internet, Cryopolitics Blog
United States: Alaskans push for acceptance of walrus ivory, but there’s an elephant in the room, Alaska Public Media