Arts, Featured

Alaska Native Art Creation Abounds at Qutekcak Building

by Justine Pechuzal for Seward City News-

Every Tuesday, a hive of artistic activity buzzes inside the Qutekcak Native Tribe building downtown.  Sewing machines whir as a the hood of a kuspuk is attached, nimble fingers weave beach grass for a basket, or a chisel shapes a paddle.  An instructor works his/her way around the room, giving feedback for the project at hand. Class participants, comprised of tribal members and the general public, range from ten years old to seventy.  An array of snacks tempt from a nearby table, including girl scout cookies, blueberries and smoked salmon. It is hard not to see how this small room off of Third Avenue presents a microcosm of contemporary Alaska Native life: blending old with new; technology with tradition, all gathered for a shared purpose: community.   

Painting instructor Kristie Hibbetts signs her completed landscape painting. Photo by Justine Pechuzal.

The current six week session offers three classes: Alaska Acrylic Scenery Painting, Alaska Native Dance Grass Fans, and Dream Catchers.  Each class is free, open to the public, and offers a unique atmosphere. For example, an enthusiastic band of beginning and intermediate painters have rallied around instructor Kristie Hibbett’s encouragement to paint the mountains and waters of Seward.  

“We learn different paint techniques with different brushes,” says class member Annette Reese,  who learned about the class through her daughter-in-law Amber Reese, a Qutekcak tribe member. “One time, I thought, ‘My painting doesn’t look like that!’  Turns out I was using the wrong brush!”

Sasha Unrein working on an independent basket weaving project. Photo by Justine Pechuzal.

Each class, K. Hibbetts guides the class through a landscape scene based from her imagination with instruction based on the iconic Bob Ross.  

“I’ve been watching his videos since I was a little kid,” K. Hibbetts says.  “I like that he says, ‘Anybody can paint.’ ”

She took his suggestion to heart.  Friends gifted her an easel, brushes, and paint on a birthday and she hasn’t stopped since.  Meanwhile, her husband, Native Arts instructor Michael Hibbetts, showed one of his wife’s paintings to the art class organizers, who then asked if she would lead a class.  Though teaching was not something K. Hibbetts had anticipated, she has taken to the endeavor with an open-mind.

“Everybody interprets differently,”  K. Hibbetts says “I inspire them [students] to create their own.  Each mountain, lake and tree is different.”

Students have embraced her approach.

“This was my first time painting,” states class member Cathy Murphy.  “Kristie encouraged me to come. She’s our favorite checkout girl at Safeway- always has the longest line.  I feel comfortable with her as a teacher. You can explore yourself without her pushing.”

Leona Gottschalk shows off her completed kuspuk from the last art session. Photo by Justine Pechuzal.

This attitude of supported experimentation transfers to other classes as well.  On a table near the paint class, tribal member Monica DeMott-Walker-Scully applies a protective clear coat to a mahogany stained paddle.  A bold halibut form stands out on the wide blade.


“The dark stain was mistake, but I liked the contrast [of the light wood] and decided to carve my design instead of paint it,” DeMott-Walker-Scully says.  

Though she was born in Seward, DeMott-Walker-Scully grew up else where, and only recently returned to town.  She started classes last fall because they were “fun and social, a good way to keep me busy.” The paddle is from a carving class taught by M. Hibbetts in the previous session.

Hibbetts, instructor for the current dream catcher class, is well versed in many Alaska Native Arts traditions, including carving, sewing, and beadwork.  He has taught classes for the Qutekcak tribe for many years, and evidence of his work, such as drums and a halibut hook, decorate the room. His passion for the arts is fueled by his curiosity to learn more about his heritage and the traditions of his Koyukon Athabascan roots.

This curiosity is shared by others in the room.  Sasha Unrein, a third generation Sewardite and Alaska Native, has recently taken up basket weaving.  

“My mom used to do it,” Unrein says.  “One day I tried it. Its hard! You need the right grass, limber.  We made coasters in the last class, and my dogs ate them!”

Unrein cites the help of instructor Collette Brantingham as key to her growth.  Brantingham, a Yupik Eskimo from Hooper Bay, Alaska, is experienced in both basket weaving and sewing, and is teaching this session’s Dance Grass Fan class. Brantingham enjoys teaching because she wants to share her culture with others.

“She’s old school,” Unrein states.  “No patterns for kuspuks, oral teaching.”  

During class, Brantingham darts like a hummingbird around the room helping students complete and start various projects.  She holds patterned blue fabric up to Phyllis Shoemaker, marking where it meets her shoulder, then wrist.

“Since you’re an adult, you need it to fit just right, not too tight, not too small,” Brantingham counsels.  Last session, Shoemaker made a kuspuk for her grandson, and is now sewing one for herself.

Instructor Collette Brantingham and Sasha Unrein test dance fan grass for flexibility. Photo by Justine Pechuzal.

At another table, Brantingham tells students to study a photograph of a Yupik dance fan.  

“How do you put the little fur in there?” someone asks.  

“You sew it,” Brantingham says, then checks on grass soaking in a large plastic bin on the floor.  Later on, select grass will be dyed various colors for decorative effect in the fans. Bags of bear and opossum fur scraps await selection as well.

So much to be done in six weeks!  Fortunately for locals, class participation is casual, allowing people to catch up if a program is started mid-way through.  The curious are also welcome to come and observe classes, as done by several tribal elders. The unifying factor between all classes, whether 2 or 3-D, is an atmosphere of welcome and camaraderie.              


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