Nine years ago, back when the end of the school day was the best part of it, Brian Walker II never imagined he’d end up where he is now.
As a teenager growing up in Eagle River, he said, he sometimes wondered where he belonged. He sometimes felt lost. Adrift. School career days were uninspiring. The future? From where he stood, it seemed fuzzy and distant.
“I was pretty disconnected from my culture for a while,” said Walker, an Alaska Native who grew up in Eagle River. “Going into high school, it really didn’t get easier.”
Fast forward to today. A student at the prestigious Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the 2012 Chugiak High School graduate is pursuing a career as a professional artist and educator, carving a niche as one of Alaska’s foremost young mask-makers.
For Walker, the transformation happened during long conversations with his grandmother, classes at the Alaska Native Heritage Center and the University of Alaska Anchorage and mentorship by some of the state’s preeminent indigenous artists. Then, in a UAA art class with Sugpiaq painter and sculptor Alvin Amason, Walker said, “I found out that’s who I was — a mask-maker.”
“The thing about Brian was, he had another purpose,” said Amason during a recent interview at his Anchorage studio. “He wasn’t making things to hang on the wall, to sell; they were utilitarian. They were objects that were being used the old way.”
The art is part of Walker’s family tree. His mother’s roots are King Island Inupiat; his father is Deg Hit’an Athabascan. Both cultures carry their own mask-making traditions, Walker said.
But it took him years to reconnect with them. At Chugiak High School, where only about six percent of students are Alaska Native, according to the Anchorage School District, Walker said he at first struggled to find his cultural bearing.
“I heard a lot of negative stereotypes of Alaska Natives,” he said. “That’s all I kind of believed for a while, because it was all I was ever told.”
Sometime around his sophomore year, though, he found himself spending more time with his grandmother, who regaled him with stories about his heritage and family history. The more Walker listened, the more his grandmother told him. He listened for hours a day.
“And that’s when I started getting back into my culture,” Walker said.
His first carving project was an unfinished King Island medicine man mask he found in his uncle’s carving shed. The traditional masks, representing a good shaman and a bad shaman, are more than just ornaments – they also have their own story and dance. Walker learned both.
By the time he graduated from high school, the future looked clearer.
“I realized that I wanted to work for my people, and strengthen our community,” Walker said. “But I had no idea how I was going to do that.”
At UAA, he found a mentor in Maria Williams, director of the school’s Alaska Native Studies Program. While Walker planned on studying for a degree in anthropology, Williams sensed his affinity for woodworking and encouraged him to chase after it.
“Some immediately know what they want to major in – but a large number of our students, they kind of shop around, they’re not sure,” she said.
Many of the school’s approximately 2,000 Alaska Native students opt for degrees in health and business-related fields. A far smaller number turn to the arts.
In Amason’s Alaska Native art class, Walker’s work caught the professor’s eye. He was carving dancing masks, Amason recalled, but the masks were too heavy. They started talking. Walker wanted to carve more. They started working together, then Walker started branching out.
“He started to own it,” Amason said. “He did the research and he started coming up with his own concepts, and once he understood the more classical forms, he started deviating, like any artist.”
Through Amason, Walker began working with Perry Eaton, another internationally known Alaska Native carver specializing in Alutiiq masks. There are three kinds of art students, Eaton said: Those who study art as a cultural concept, and those who want to be artists.
“Then there’s a third group that actually has the talent,” Eaton said. “And Brian clearly fell in that group.”
The two men began carving together. It’s no simple task. Once, while taking Walker through the steps necessary to create a Kodiak Island mask, Eaton explained the mental preparation that goes into the physical work. You need a story, he said. You need to think about representation and symbolism; how the mask will dance and what message it will bring.
Walker did it all.
“So that’s really telling, when you have that kind of student,” Eaton said.
Before long, Amason and Eaton said, they knew it was time for their charge to leave the nest: Walker needed the inspirational chaos of new art forms and fresh ideas and unfamiliar geography. He needed to leave Alaska.
“You can mentor someone so much,” Amason said. “But there’s a point where you really don’t have much to say anymore.”
Together with Williams, the two artists conspired to send their protégé to Santa Fe. At first, Walker resisted the idea. He wondered how he could earn a living with art.
“But I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “I didn’t want to work in an office, I woke up every day excited to go carve.”
To make a career out of carving, Walker realized, he needed a specialized degree, so he packed his bags and went south. His decision is a small part of a societal sea change: At 72, Eaton still remembers the time when Alaska Native art stayed hidden.
“The culture has dramatically changed in our lifetime,” Eaton said.
Growing up on Kodiak, he said, there wasn’t a decorative bowl in sight. Culture was repressed and language was stigmatized.
“We did things, but we did them quietly and we did them in the kitchen — you didn’t do them in public. God, you wouldn’t eat a raw fish head publicly, you’d be ostracized,” he said. “And where we are today is, it’s not only okay to be Native, it’s pretty cool, and we have young people like Brian who are literally embracing the culture.”
This semester, Walker started classes at the IAIA, where he studies sculpture and holds a job as a student worker in the sculpture building. There are student art shows and art competitions and amazing facilities stocked with every tool a craftsman could need. Walker uses his newfound cultural knowledge as a platform to create his own artistic style.
After graduating from the art institute, Walker hopes to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree at another school, then return to Alaska to carve and teach. In New Mexico, he found new inspiration. He discovered something else, too.
“In a sense, when you leave your home and you go to a new place, you really find out who you are and where you belong,” he said.
He already has his answer: He’s proud to be Alaska Native, he said, and Alaska will always be home.