Yup’ik artist harvests his own skins, crafts his own style

A Southeast Alaska skin-sewer is one of four Alaska artists recently chosen for out-of-state residencies.

Peter Williams of Sitka displays his seal and sea otter products during the 2013 Juneau Public Market. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)
Peter Williams of Sitka displays his seal and sea otter products during the 2013 Juneau Public Market. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

Yup’ik artist Peter Williams of Sitka will go to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, under the Rasmuson Foundation-funded program.

“I hunt seals and sea otters and I make handicrafts out of the furs of the animals that I harvest,” Williams said. “And I also do a lot of work with expressing and celebrating spiritual connections and relationships with nature.”

The skin artist will spend most of January and February at the institute. He says he’ll work on expanding the range of what he makes, which includes seal and sea otter vests, hats, earrings and headbands.

“As someone who harvests their own art material and I run my own microbusiness and I do a lot of subsistence activities in Sitka and spend a lot of time being spread thin in different areas, I don’t find a lot of time to sit down and create and design new products,” he said.

Williams said those include seal and leather mittens and military-style bill caps.

Peter Williams, right, poses with models Jerica Young, Anthony Flora and Denise Reed, at TechStyle NYC during this year’s Fashion Week. (Photo courtesy TechStyle NYC)
Peter Williams, right, poses with models Jerica Young, Anthony Flora and Denise Reed, at TechStyle NYC during this year’s Fashion Week. (Photo courtesy TechStyle NYC)

He also wants to expand into men’s ware, starting with scarves. And there’s more.

“I’m sewing sea otter footwear and have been researching the traditional ways of making footwear. I’m interested in both, doing the traditional sealskin boots, but also in incorporating sealskin into something more modern like a sneaker,” he said.

Seals and sea otters are protected marine mammals, but they’re not endangered in the waters where Williams hunts. Coastal Alaska Natives are allowed to hunt some species for food, clothing, art and crafts.

The Institute of American Indian Arts, where Williams will have his residency, is a four-year college that’s a gathering place of students and skilled artists from tribal groups across the United States.

“It’s a great opportunity to network with other artists that are there in residency, with the community of Santa Fe, with other organizations, and to kind of learn and grow through experience as an artist and from other artists and cultures,” Williams said.

Others chosen for next year’s Rasmuson residency program are Fairbanks printmaker Sara Tabbert, Cordova writer Rosemary McGuire and Anchorage visual artist Sheila Wyne.

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Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell. He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues. He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.