February 25, 2011 | Myrna Anderson

Perry Eaton points out a detail of Southern Dreams.

For a long time, there was a piece of white spruce laying around in Perry Eaton’s studio in Anchorage, Alaska. Then, one day, he picked it up and began to carve it. Slowly, a mask emerged from wood, and the expression on its face led Eaton to call it “Doofus.” The mask is about him, its carver said, and about the human condition: “There’s a little bit of Doofus in all of us.”

Eaton’s sort-of self portrait is one of ten masks that form the exhibition “Transformation Tools: Alutiiq Masks of Kodiak Island,” on display in the Center Art Gallery through March 18. There are two duck-faced masks called Sisters. There is The Stargazer, a blue panel mask that depicts the five worlds of Alutiiq lore. There is a mask that represents whale hunting and a mask named Southern Dreams that embodies the flight of the pelican. “You know how pelicans fly in formation?” he said. “It represents that.”

Eaton has carved them from a variety of woods—his favorite is white spruce—using gouges and crooked knives. He’s sanded them, painted them with oils and applied feathers, brushes and the beads he collects from all over the world.  “I like to say that I do it the way my ancestors did, using the best tools possible,” he said.

Five generations

The artist grew up in the village of Kodiak on Kodiak Island in Alaska, descended from Russian, Suqpiac Alutiiq and English people who have lived there for generations. “In my village, I literally can walk and hunt on trails that five generations of my family have walked on,” he said.

Educated in Seattle, Wash. Eaton began commercial fishing on Kodiak when he was 10. “I was a late bloomer,” he said. “Some of the kids were on the boats when they were in diapers.” When he proposed to attend college, his father—a bear guide-salmon fisherman-card dealer—protested. “He said, ‘You can’t feed a family from books,’” Eaton recalled. “It was all about feeding a family. The college people he saw couldn’t make it in his world, so he thought it was a stupid way to go.”

Eaton studied accounting and business, married, settled in Anchorage and worked for several years as one of the few native bankers in Alaska. And when Exxon settled millions of dollars on natives in the wake of the Valdez disaster, the Alutiiq tribal elders approached him about working with a newly founded Alutiiq cultural foundation. “You don’t say no to an elder,” he explained his career change.

“So, my thing was to find the physical culture. There were many people who didn’t think we had it,” Eaton said. Many of the masks, baskets and other Alutiiq artifacts had disappeared, some because Russian citizens of Kodiak had taken them to Russia after Alaska achieved statehood. In fact, by that time, Eaton said, many of the Alutiiq artwork had been already collected by Europeans (and Russians), and the Alutiiq cultural heritage truly disappeared when being native fell into disfavor.  

Reclaiming a heritage

Eaton began reclaiming his tribe’s artistic legacy by visiting major Alutiiq collections in Russia and France, where he saw masks and baskets that were virtually untouched. And he began carving his own masks in the native manner, based on those he saw in collections. “What’s not to like?” he said. “You get a sharp knife and sit there and whittle.”

Though they hang in galleries and in the homes of collectors, Eaton’s masks are not intended to be merely wall art. They are “danced”—worn in the memorial dances that the Alutiiq have resurrected to honor the dead. Eaton is content to work within a tradition.

“I believe it’s important to create a contemporary body of work that is ethnographically identifiable … ,” he said. “Artists love to deviate, to innovate, and I do, I do. But if you’re working within the family, and you’re starting a new page, building on the story to date—I want the story to continue with some continuity. There’s such a gap between yesterday and today. I want to pick it up kind of where it left off.”

That devotion to an established art is what makes Eaton a great artist, said Calvin director of exhibitions Joel Zwart: “He has such a diverse background in Alaskan art, business, culture and native affairs, that his artwork also informs what he does and who he is. The masks are simply beautiful, but more than that—they are symbols of a revived Alutiiq culture.”

Eaton spoke to school groups and carved in Center Art Gallery as an artist-in residence from the opening of the show until February 22. Then he packed up his tools. The masks, including his wooden alter ego, stayed on the wall.

“There are a couple of masks that are not for sale,” he said. “Doofus is one of them.”

Perry Eaton carving


A view of "Sisters"

Watch Perry as he describes a mask.

Read how Calvin dance professor Ellen Van't Hof and alum Rob Prince collaborated on a documentary about Alutiiq dance.

Recent stories