Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Images of the North

“Alaska … where you can never be too fat or too drunk” – Homer Simpson

Tonight I gave a guest lecture to an upper-level art history class “Images of the North”; the title pretty much says it all, as far as what the course content is. I’m one of a list of presenters scheduled to appear over the semester, each of us sharing insight about how our work relates to and reflects the particular (peculiar) sense of place inherent in “Alaskan art.”
As is my usual style, I start off with some samples of my own stuff, namely cartoons and some illustrations, but then deviate into a related side-issue on the topic of racial stereotyping, in this particular case, of Alaska Natives. Art that is tied to a region such as Alaska will reflect either the place or the people, and I thought sharing my experiences on this matter might provide some insight.
A couple years ago I underwent a transformative experience over an editorial cartoon I drew in response to yet another renewed assault on ANWR by our elected officials in Washington. I even had a friend of mine who is a Gwich’in activist help me to get the text translated into her language. While I’m still quite proud of the piece, the morning after creating it I showed it to another faculty member who happened to teach in Native Arts. This person was angrily dismissive and handed it back telling me it was racist.

Now I’ve slowly over the years become adjusted to the fact that as a white, male, heterosexual, middle-class liberal I tend to carry a lot of latent guilt around, and have to monitor my reactions to such accusations, as it hurts, and therefore will tend to provoke a response rooted in anger and fear. My initial reflex was to hotly deny that charge, pointing out the overriding message behind the piece was essentially putting down white people and it was done purely against what I perceived to be another injustice in a long history of abuses suffered upon indigenous people. That and I also countered with the hip-shot “Well you just don’t have a sense of humor” and that their own issues predisposed them to interpreting the cartoon’s point completely wrong.

Needless to say I went into a mental tailspin after that confrontation, and set about exhuming older material to see just what exactly it looked like in the light of this disturbing insight. As it happened I was also in the process of digitally laying out a couple new books, collected cartoons from over the past eight years. I was thus able to see thumbnails of all the panels easily on one screen, and noticed in the book of earlier material I depicted Natives only a few times, but in the more recent work that jumped to roughly triple that number. To make a long story short, I wound up voluntarily self-editing a handful of questionable ones which may or may not havealso carried the risk of misinterpretation. I then collected all of the cartoons where Natives were portrayed spanning over those eight years and compiled them into sets of handouts, which I took around to several people I knew in the College of Rural Alaska and a couple other Native instructors and friends. One of the problems with that was most of these individuals not only possessed a great sense of humor but they tended to not take my concerns seriously either, especially coming from me and what they knew of my intent and personal motivation behind drawing such things.

In the end, I came to the same realization and conclusion that has a parallel in my experiences with many feminist issues: basically I don’t have a say in whether or not someone interprets my work as being racist, it simply isn’t my call to make, especially whether they are right or wrong – it ain’t about me. In addition to acknowledging the legitimacy of another’s perspective, if I shut the hell up and listen, I also just might just learn something about them and myself, as uncomfortable as it may be. This doesn’t necessarily mean someone else’s opinion will affect what I ultimately do, but out of respect there should be a pause to consider, and some effort made to both justify and explain my choices. In this case, I have modified my portrayals, though I still keep open season on the stupid crap that white people do. Another way of looking at all this was, my assumption that everyone’s fair game and all bets are off when it comes to comedy is in fact coming from, and a symptom of, the privileged position in society afforded to the white, male, heterosexual, middle-class liberal. There is a closely related issue concerning the roots of humor itself; that it is predicated on the suffering or misfortunes of others, at someone else’s expense, and someone will always be the butt of a joke, but that’s another posting.

Meanwhile, after that confessional deviation, it was on with the show:
As is typical of my presentations these days, I try and take on way too much – this set a new personal record topping out at a whopping 180 images in an hour and a half, including accompanying narration. Only about a quarter of the pictures shown were of my own work; there were some of my influences, some current favorites, and a wide-ranging collection of contemporary media portrayals of Alaska. Plus I presented for their consideration some graphic logos and iconic motifs that appear on everyday items, which are often overlooked and taken for granted. Also I dedicated a portion to some historical representations of Alaska and included some Canadian comics as well, and closed out the show & tell with an overview that showcased the work of one artist in particular – Alootook Ipellie.

Selected excerpts from Image List & Bibliographic Info handout:
#3-5: screen grab of a Google Image Search for “images of the North” – kind of a joke on my instinctual on-line resource for virtually anything (in this case it was a bust).
#7-15: Childhood classics “Lassie: Adventure in Alaska” (George Elrick, 1967 Whitman) Hilarious little comic book where Corey discovers a thawing mammoth, but is pinned under a boulder during a sudden avalanche; and loyal Lassie has to fetch his gun, gather firewood, defend against a marauding moose, beat off a pack of hungry wolves, and even a pissed-off wolverine, before finally being rescued by Friendly Eskimos. Also some equally cheesy illustrations from Farley Mowat’s “Two Against the North” (1956 Scholastic) and Arthur Winfield’s “The Rover Boys in Alaska” (1917 Grosset & Dunlap).

#16-22: B. Kliban cartoons (1935-1990) My primary inspiration as a cartoonist happened to devote many panels to making fun of Eskimo clichés, and I show a series as a bridge into the discussion outlined above about stereotypical representations of Alaska natives in popular culture along with my own work. I used a series of these to segue into...
#23: ... the ANWR editorial discussed above.

#24-30: Nuggets – portrayals of Native Alaskans.
#31-55: classic FreezeFrame & Nuggets cartoons + random illustrations & posters. Recurrent themes of weather gags, animals, outhouses etc. regional humor that only a local would get…

#56-58: LIFE magazine photos (ex:1923 Harding car) – I’m a huge fan of the recent Google project archiving all of Life’s historical photographs, which is an on-line gold mine for ideas.
#59-66: Ester Republic editorials – along with the requisite archetypal animals (polar bears, grizzlies, wolves etc. I firmly believe Sarah Palin will now be forever enshrined into the lexicon of imagery associated with Alaska.
#67: Thomas Nast (1840-1902) editorial “The Caucasian Bear Will Now Have Home Rule, And Will Not Be Intimidated Any More." (re:1877 Army w/d from AK ) + “Old Mother Seward” 1867 Harper’s Weekly.
#68: Ding Darling (1876-1962) editorial “Oh Mr. Hoover, Help, Help!” 1932 “The last of the Alaskan brown bears; let me kill 'em off so I can promote another paper mill; when we have so many paper mills now that the industry is almost bankrupt…” This guy is my current favorite editorial cartoonist that I'll blog about on a seperate post later this summer.
#69-78: Adakians: “Wind Blown & Dripping – A Book of Aleutian Cartoons” 1945 “Dashiell Hammett, age 49 enlisted in U.S. Army in 1943, editor of camp newspaper on the island of Adak in the Aleutians, recently liberated from Japanese occupation. Hammett edited and financed this book of cartoons by soldier artists on his staff.” This little book of cartoons drawn in wax stencils is probably the single most coolest discovery I ever stumbled across during my frequent digs in the Rasmusen library’s Polar Region collection, captures the essense of life beautifully.
#79: Jane Hafling, 1959 Anchorage cartoonist who created “Haf-Baked Alaska” feature.
#80-84: Carl Barks, creator Scrooge McDuck 1965 “North of the Yukon” and 1953 “Back to the Klondike” (1981 restored version) – you cannot overestimate the wide influence this dude’s work had upon millions of youngsters in exposing and shaping their impressions of Alaska and reinforcing the clichés.
#85: PAWS – Doug Urquhart “Skookum’s North” self-syndicated Yukon cartoonist, 10 year run.

#84-91: Canadian comics: In the 1940’s following theWWII embargo on imported frivolities, American comics were banned, which gave rise to a bunch of unique and distinctly Canadian heroes like Johnny Canuk, Dixon of the Mounted and Nelvana of the North. (Loubert & Hirsh’s “The Great Canadian Comic Books” 1971 Peter Martin Assoc.), Also the Joe Shuster Awards which began in 2004.
#92-94: The New Avengers issues #16-#20, Marvel Comics 2006 – North Pole is destroyed (The Collective/Alpha Flight/mutant Michael Pointer/Guardian/Omega Flight).
#97-100: Strong Man, 2007 Alaska ICE Ishmael Hope, writer/Dimi Macheras, art; traditional Tlingit stories retold in comic format.
#101-105: Midnight Sun – Ben Towle, 2008 SLG Publishing historical fiction;1928 Italian airship “Italia” expedition to the North Pole.
#107-110: For Better or For Worse strip, Lynn Johnson/Universal Press (Canadian): 2004 series when Elizabeth Patterson taught at Mtigwaki – fictional Ojibwe community in Northern Ontario
#111: Mukluk strip, Robin Heller, PA, 10 year daily that ran in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
#112-113: Simpsons Movie stills, 2007 David Silverman
#114-115: Northern Exposure (‘90-93 tv dramedy) Cicely + Roslyn Café stills
#116: Red Green (‘91-96 Canadian sitcom) Steve Smith
#117: Grizzly Man movie still, 2005 Werner Herzog (Timothy Treadwell)
#119: Into the Wild movie still, 2007 Sean Penn (Christopher McCandless)
#121-122: 30 Days of Night movie stills, 2008 David Slade based on comic by Ben Templesmith, 2002 IDW Publishing
#123-125: The Last Winter movie stills, 2008 Larry Fessenden (Iceland).
#127-139: assorted Ray Troll, Sandy Jamieson, Randall Compton, Byron Birdsall.
#140-144: assorted AK stamps, 2008 state quarter, AK license plate (97-04) - I love pointing out that this is technically an image of a long line of people LEAVING Alaska...
#145: Made In Alaska & Silver Hand logos.
#147: AK Airlines logo, compared to Carpinteria CA “Warriors” mascot controversy.
#148: Alootook Ipellie: Canadian Inuit, author, editor, artist, cartoonist: born 1951 hunting camp Baffin Island near Iqualit, NWT (Nunavut), died Ottawa 2007. Editorial panels from Inuit Today (editor 79-82), “IceBox” feature1970’s Inuit Monthly,
“Nuna & Vut” for Iqaluit’s Nuntsiaq News, illustrations from “ Arctic Dreams & Nightmares” 1993 Theytus Books (1st pub. book by Inuit), and illustrations from “Paper Stays Put”, Robin Gedalof 1999. McClelland & Stewart.
And if that wasn’t enough, I capped it all off (after a break) with a scaled-down hands-on portfolio show & tell of selected pieces that were displayed in my 2007 exhibit “Cartoon North” at the Annex Gallery in Ester:

Some good questions and comments from this class, and hopefully I gave a different take on “Images of the North,” a real nice chat with students afterwards too. After the mental magic pumpkin hour where I catch a second wind I’m back home blogging even though the 8am class is looming…

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