State art collection acquires spirit mask from emerging Yup’ik carver

Ben Charles’ spirit mask is one of 18 art pieces acquired by the Alaska Art Bank in 2017. (Photo by Ben Charles)

Walk into a courtroom, a legislative office, the Governor’s Mansion, or any public space in Alaska and you’ll find art: masks, paintings, textiles, sculptures. Each piece was created by Alaska artists, curated by the state, and is held in the Alaska Art Bank. The collection recently acquired a Yup’ik mask from Bethel artist Ben Charles. Charles is 34 years old and only began carving in February. KYUK visited Charles at his home studio in Bethel.

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CHARLES: The piece is representative of the cloudy sky spirit. It represents the spirit that takes a person’s spirit away and brings it to the next universe or plane. My uncle passed away from cancer, and I was thinking of him when I made it. And when I was carving it, I was thinking he made it to the next life.

It’s made of spruce root. I found it when I was our getting firewood this past winter. As I was driving back, there was a big piece of spruce root on the side of the river; I just chopped it up and brought it home.

So the piece is cut in half, and the opposite sides of the face are on either side, and it’s carved in a curve, and it’s blue and white. One side is white and one side is blue with the circles of the universe, and the earth, and the solar system, and the four dots for the four winds above the eye. And also dots and circles along the face where the cut was.

No one taught me. I studied my grandpa and my dad’s pieces; kinda looked at how they might have carved it in reverse.

I started my online art business for Alaska Native Arts Online over a year ago, and I needed more inventory, and my wife got me this book about my grandpa: Nick, or Nicholas, Charles. His Yup’ik name was Ayaginar. He was a pretty famous carver back in the early to mid 1990s.

The arctic entry in Ben Charles’ home serves as his carving studio. Here, he’s holding the beginning of a wolf mask. (Photo by Anna Rose MacArthur / KYUK)

One of the quotes in there is,”You wake up every day, and it’s a new day. And with a new day comes new opportunity.” I believe is the rough quote. And just from reading his background, it made me want to carry on the tradition and the family name, because there’s not many carvers left in the Charles family.

I think he passed away when I was six or seven, but I used to watch him carve when I was a kid. He had this little room, and he’d be hunched over with an old desk lap with his old, traditional carving tools and his cotton button sweater and plaid shirt and his dress-up pants, and he’d be sitting there carving, quietly. A lot of masks. I think I remember him making a bent wood bowl and some dance fans.

I didn’t really start paying attention to the Yup’ik culture until several years ago. I listened, but I didn’t listen well enough until just recently. And with the Yup’ik culture, it’s passing knowledge verbally from generation to generation. And for carving, I feel that my dad and my grandpa are there, helping me carve.

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Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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