Thursday, September 25, 2008

Art Space Talk: Phillip John Charette

Phillip John Charette’s masks reflect old traditional Yup’ik cosmology with his own contemporary interpretations and some added twists. Phillip is a member of the Yupiit Nation in Southwestern Alaska along the Kuskokwim River, and is enrolled through the Bureau of Indian Affairs with the Alaskan Native 13th Regional Corporation. His Alaskan Native Yup'ik name is Aarnaquq which means "the one who is dangerous...".

The style of Phillip’s work is inspired by elements found in traditional ceremonial objects that he has researched in museums. Contemporary materials are incorporated for impact which help to convey ideas that he wishes to express. In spite of the fact that he uses contemporary materials, carving - a Yup'ik tradition - is incorporated in his artistic process.

Phillip’s work reflects who his namesake Aarnaquq is, acknowledges Aarnaquq, and allows the artist to follow in the footsteps of his namesake. Phillip carries on a new tradition of Yup'ik spiritual works. Utilizing contemporary ideas, materials, and stories, new traditions evolve and reach out to those listening and in need.

Gathering Place --This piece represents a gathering place or a place where people of different backgrounds and interests gather.

Brian Sherwin: Phillip, you hold degrees from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Harvard University in Education, Native Studies, and Administration. However, in 2001 you left your position in administration in order to pursue work as a full-time artist. What made you decide to take that change in direction, so to speak?

Phillip John Charette: I was working in an administrative position at the University of Wisconsin Madison when I changed directions. It was a stressful position with long hours, compromising my health. My doctor ordered me to leave the position and get out of administration altogether, change my lifestyle, and look for a new healthier career. I was told that if I did not change my lifestyle, I would be dead in less then five years from a massive heart attack. It is interesting how differently you look at life once you are given a definitive time line for the time you have left to live. Given the option, I followed doctors orders and relocated to a small town in rural Oregon.
Because of my academic background and experience, it turned out I was over-qualified for many positions I applied for. In the Winter of 1999, I took a beginning pottery class, which helped put me on the path to re-inventing myself. My work was considered high-level by instructors and other artists, which led to instructing three pottery classes the following Spring. With the encouragement of friends and families, I began entering art competitions, winning awards, and receiving more and more recognition as an artist. Thus, my career as an artist was born, and in 2001 I became a full-time professional artist.

Qucillgaq -- Qucillgaq is Yup'ik for Crane. This mask has special meaning between me and my Yup'ik grandparents. Briefly, it is a reminder not to be consumed by one's self.

BS: Phillip, you are a member of the Yupiit Nation in Southwestern Alaska. My understanding is that your tribal name is Aarnaquq. Can you discuss the traditions of the Yupiit Nation and how they are reflected in your work?

PJC: Yup'ik in our language means "Real Person" implying a deep connection to all things in the universe. As such, traditional Yup'ik cosmology is deeply spiritual, emphasizing our connection to all things tangible and intangible. There is a rich breadth of tradition in the Yup'ik culture, which is too much to answer here. However, I will speak to those that are most reflected in my work.
All traditional Yup'ik ways of being are intertwined with the spirit world and are reflected in our spiritual beliefs. For example, traditional Yupik cosmology believes in the reincarnation of spirit from lifetime to lifetime so that the spirit always continues. In my work, I paint many small white dots representing stars where ancestors and spirits freely move. I include hoops or rings, which represent the physical world and the spirit world interconnected. The red in my work, is a reflection of when our shamans used real blood in masks, creating doorways to the spirit world. Integration of spirit faces representing family members who shaped the spirit of the mask or sculpture are used. Many animal spirits show the interconnectedness we share with fellow creatures of the universe.
While there is much more detail to my work that, for the sake of space, I won't go into here, it is important to note that everything that I put into a piece has some connection to our traditional beliefs presented in a contemporary manner. Every color, embellishment, and detail bears special meaning. With each mask, those meanings are provided when they are on display or sold. Bear Tuunraq -- This bear mask was inspired by my father and the life he lived as a law enforcement officer. It teaches us how a strong and beautiful spirit can disfigured by the life it lead. The story goes with this piece and is for anyone who's strong and beautiful spirit was disfigured by the life it had to live. It reminds us to carefully think about the life path we choose. The life path we choose ultimately shapes the spirit we become and the spirit we must ultimately face.

BS: Can you go into detail about the contemporary interpretations of your work? Your work often involves a meshing of tradition with an added contemporary twist, correct?

PJC: Yes, my work is a reflection of many Yup'ik traditions, sometimes utilizing contemporary thoughts or ideas. More importantly, I use traditional themes while incorporating contemporary materials, pushing the subject of my work to the next level of fine art and illustrating the complexity of our traditional cosmology. Some of our elders have pointed out that the next generation of emerging Yup'ik artists need new technical and creative benchmarks. These benchmarks are necessary to move Yup'ik art and cosmology to the next level as they compete with many things in the contemporary world. So, I continually strive to push the art, technical level, and cosmology to the next level in hopes of capturing the spirit and imagination of our youth; encouraging them to move the spirit of the art beyond the level of my work as it evolves.

BS: Your name, Aarnaquq, means "the one who is dangerous...". I understand that your namesake is important within the context of your work. Can you explain this connection?

PJC: As a result of the traditional belief in reincarnation, it is the responsibility of the elders to look at the spirit that has returned and give back the name of that person from their previous life. This person is then treated as the person's previous spirit that went before them, carrying all the knowledge, responsibility, and wisdom of that person's spirit through their current life. My grandparents Cunar and Nausgauq, with other elders, remembered me, naming me Aarnaquq, treating me as their parent/grandparents, and giving me the same responsibilities. I am named after my great grandmother Aarnaquq and my great, great grandfather Aarnaquq who were both powerful healers on the Kuskokwim River/Bristol Bay areas. It was the responsibility of our healers (Shaman) to direct or make Yup'ik masks and all things spiritual. Dance or performance masks were used for many purposes, including spiritual ceremony.
When I began as an artist, I struggled with sharing, selling, and showing my work. At one point, I was at a crossroads with my work and the pressure to make a living from art bore heavily on my contemporary notion of what success is. I shared my distress with one of my elders and they became firm in both their advice and resolve. I was told, "You are Aarnaquq!...this is who YOU are...this is what you are supposed to do!...If you don't do this, Aarnaquq, who will do this and carry this tradition on in the way you are doing it and meant to do it!" With these words, I swallowed hard and realized what the body of my work represented; it IS my responsibility to my spirit and the spirit of the Yup'ik people to do this work. So, now every time I make a piece, I think of my responsibility as Aarnaquq to continue doing what I am supposed to do. In a strange twist of fate, I am doing what my spirit was meant to do from a "traditional" Yup'ik tradition.
Ullagait Anateng -- This mask teaches us of our responsibilities to our children to create a solid foundation for the future of humanity. This mask would be for anyone who sees the cycle of life as a continuous journey.

BS: If you don’t mind, can you discuss the spiritual aspects of your work? Is there a spiritual message that you strive to convey to those who view your work?

PJC: Most of the spiritual elements of my work tie into traditional Yup'ik ways of being and cosmology. It is difficult to speak of specific spiritual aspects, as that is the responsibility of our traditional healers. The Yup'ik elders identify who is qualified to speak of such things. At this point in my life, I feel that I am not qualified to openly discuss core spiritual aspects of Yup'ik cosmology,other then with Yup'ik elders. However, my work is very spiritual in nature, reflecting some commonly known spiritual themes.
Most of my work does convey strong spiritual messages, which people with diverse backgrounds can relate to. What intrigues me is the connection that people - from all walks of life - make with the meaning in my work. It is both powerful and humbling to see people make such significant connections to my work in their own personal and spiritual ways. I guess if I were to identify one unifying spiritual theme in my work, it would have to be that we are connected to all things in the universe.

BS: As for spirituality in art, some art critics suggest that there is no room for the spiritual in contemporary art-- that we have reached a point that it is no longer valid. I must ask, when you visit a museum, gallery, or even a fellow artists studio in order to observe contemporary works… do you observe aspects of spirituality within the art you observe-- even in works of non-native peoples? Would you say that all art contains some form of spiritual essence regardless of the artists intention? What are your thoughts on that?

PJC: I have to disagree with some of those critics. But then again, I think it is important to know what one's definition of spiritual is in order to disagree with this statement. My definition of spiritual deals with all elements of the human condition: feelings, emotions, conditions, and the energy we get and put into our lives and in what we share with others. With this in mind, a work of art that is only done in a technical manner may be free of anything spiritual from the artist, but does it make it spiritless? If an observer of fine contemporary art connects with some deep element within a piece [not meant to be spiritual], moving them completely and without intent, is the work spiritual or not spiritual?
I've done a number of shows with many contemporary artists from all walks of life and am fascinated at how much personal and spiritual meaning artists put into contemporary works of art. I was part of a traveling museum exhibit titled "Changing Hands II, Art Without Reservation," which traveled to many museums around the United States. Upon first glance, a number of the pieces were wonderful contemporary works of art with exciting and exceptional technical elements, not striking me as being very spiritual. However, during the opening of the exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design in New York, a number of artists were on hand to discuss their work; which is always an eye opening experience. I was amazed at the high percentage of artists who wove in personal and spiritual threads to their work.
For example, an fellow artist and I were discussing their contemporary piece that had deep spiritual meaning and was quite profound. It just so happened that a writer for an art magazine was eavesdropping on our Native to Native conversation and was quite taken by what the artist had to say about their piece. The writer simply stood stunned and said, "Wow, I would have never gotten the meaning of the piece just by looking at it....With your description, I now understand just how powerful and deep this piece really is!" So, the intent of the artist was to tie in a personal spiritual element, making the piece very powerful; whereas the initial interpretation of this piece by a critic was far from spiritual, with the critic looking only at the technical aspects and the composition. Just because a critic does not see the spiritual in contemporary art doesn't mean it doesn't exist or that it is no longer valid as defined by their definition of spiritual.

Throughout human history, contemporary artists [in each of their days], expressed the spirit of the human condition in many of the masterpieces now on exhibition in museums around the world. In my travels, I've had the opportunity to see a breadth of human expressions in art (some of which completely took my breath away) that are very spiritual in nature. As a Yup'ik artist, I see aspects of spirituality within all works of art from both Native and non-native peoples, perhaps due to my cultural and spiritual upbringing. More importantly, people from all walks of life (from diverse religious backgrounds) make their own spiritual connections to my work in ways I never intended.
To completely understand a contemporary work of art, I believe it is vital that the observer interact with the artist whenever possible to make a complete connection. I believe that all art is interactive and dynamic, expressing the spirit of our human condition and connecting us to something deep within ourselves: our spiritual essence. I believe that those who live a connected life (in whatever spiritual way they choose) will experience the spiritual connection in the processes of life, and their interconnectedness with life and art. Those who live as vapid travelers disconnected from life and emotion, well lets just hope that they find some happiness in their life...but not as critics.

Wold Mask -- Symbolizes the connection I made with a wolf in the Brooks Range Alaska. A memorable connection with a beautiful and large wolf when I was hunting with my family along the Yukon River. Note: Additional feathers have been added since this photo was taken.

BS: In your opinion, why do we need to seek the spiritual in art?

PJC: The spiritual has been in art since the first cave paintings were made. Traditional Yup'ik art was functional in the sense that it described what could not be seen: the physical world, and the life we share this world with in the natural environment. Traditional art provided a foundation for all of our spiritual beliefs, expressing the spiritual elements we live with. The function of traditional Yup'ik art provided our peoples with guidance, power, protection, and wisdom. It also answered questions about spirits, human beings, other creatures, the natural world, where we are, and where our spirit will go.
Again, throughout history, we've needed to express the spiritual in art as it connected us to the core of who we are, where we are going, and where we will go as terrestrial beings. To say that there is no room for the spiritual in contemporary art is like saying that there is no room for the human condition in art! If this were the case, then machines should take over the production and appreciation of art.
This mask teaches us about selfishness, greed, love, and fairness. This mask would be appropriate for anyone who pursues something without regarding the consequences to others and - in the end - to them selves.

BS: Tell us more about your work… specifically your mixed media sculptures and Yup’ik masks. Perhaps you can describe some of the methods of your process?

PJC: My mixed media sculptures and Yup'ik masks continually evolve in unexpected ways. They are complex composite works sometimes requiring hundreds of smaller pieces connected to one unifying theme. Some of my medium work may take months while other larger pieces sometimes take years to complete. On average, one of my larger pieces of work takes a year depending on the processes and number of techniques I use. My work includes, but is not limited to, wood carving, wood carving with a torch, wood bending, clay sculpture, fine work with porcelain, raku, horse-hair firing, fused glass, bronze work, working with found objects, painting, printing, bead work, metal smithing, photography, and a variety of finishing techniques. I incorporate so many techniques and employ newer techniques on a regular basis that it would be difficult to list them all here.

BS: One of your masks can be found in the permanent collection at the Portland Art Museum. I understand that it is located in the Arctic room. Where else can our readers view your work in person?

PJC: In Oregon, the Coos Art Museum, the Hallie Ford Museum, and Crow's Shadow Institute of the Arts all have my work. I do shows all over the US which include the Santa Fe Indian Art Market, the Eiteljorg Museum Art Market, the Heard Museum Art Market, the Washington State History Museum Art Market, the National Museum of the American Indian Art Market( NY & DC), American Concern for Artistry, and a host of other art markets, with locations found on my web site. My work is also at the Stonington Gallery in Seattle, the Freed Gallery in Lincoln City, the Northwest by Northeset Gallery in Cannon Beach, and the Carnegie Crossroads Art Center in Baker City. Commercial locations include The Brimstone Woodfire Grill in Pembroke Pines, Florida, and the Bandon Dunes Resort in Bandon, Oregon.

The Dance -- This single page triptych represents the dance of life. It was done using a traditional story knife. The story is told by a left handed person starting from right to left, inverting and continuing from left to right, inverting again and finishing from left to right. The symbol in the background represents life. Follow the traditional footstep symbols to read the story. Each piece is unique

BS: Can you tell us about your recent work? What are you working on at this time?
PJC: I heard both Ellen Taubman and David McFadden (curators of Changing Hands II) say that I've definitely developed my own style since Changing Hands... and that my style has become recognizable, having its own signature. As my work evolves, it becomes more and more difficult to identify the box it fits into, especially for judging and in competition at National venues. As an artist you are told that you need to push the envelope, stretching out to new frontiers of expression. Yet, the art Establishment constantly narrowly defines boxes that work fits into. What I CAN say about my recent work is that it fits less and less into specific categories and is sometimes very difficult to define. I find it humorous when entering art competition that I usually end up talking with the head judge who shrugs and says, put your art in the category that you think it best fits.

I am very excited about my recent work. Especially my recent prints. I just finished a print titled "Medicine" printed with a Tamarind Master printer at Crow's Shadow Institute of the Arts and it was a total winner; it is a mixed mono print, with 14 in the series. This print expresses what traditional medicine meant to Yup'ik people: having a shaman wearing different masks, drummers under the shaman during ceremony, the Kuskokwim mountains in the background, and an eclipsed moon showing a time of ceremony. These mono prints took several steps to finish and the process can be found on my web site under the prints page.

I entered the "Medicine" print at the Santa Fe Indian Art Market (the most prestigious Native American Art Market) which had a great deal of strong competition. "Medicine" was awarded a First Place Blue Ribbon for mono prints and the Best of Division for two dimensional works. When I returned to Baker, I entered it into the Eastern Oregon Open Regional Art competition and it took Best of Show.

My recent three dimensional work is also exciting. I have been fusing animals with human forms, making the human face the body of the animal. I've also pushed my finishing work to the next level and have been incorporating more precious stones. I want to incorporate more of my fused glass and would like to get a commission to do a large work in glass, bronze or a combination of the two. My recent work has a great deal of red and refined elements, which are traditional in pre-contact pieces. I am currently finishing work for a market at the Nassau Museum in New York this October.

Singing Spirit Masks -- These small mask represent spirits singing with full emotion. These masks are one of my signature pieces of work

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art?

PJC: “Aarnaquq Cegg'artuq!", The one who is dangerous is alive and awake!

You can learn more about Phillip John Charette by visiting his website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor

1 comment:

Phillip Charette said...

Hello...hello....hello.....Is anyone out there...there...there?

Guess that this don't resonate with an experience anyone else has. At any rate, art happens. Sometimes you just step in it!