Alaska 'I don't like to waste anything," said Audrey
Armstrong. That includes what some would consider garbage. She pointed
to a beautifully formed bowl made from reddish salmon skins. "Those
are the leftovers from four of my girlfriends' dinners."
people once made containers by sewing fish skins together. But by
the time Armstrong was born few remembered the skill. Her aunt,
Huslia elder Catherine Attla, recalled hearing about such items
but could not recall having seen them, she said.
at 6, Armstrong and three siblings were adopted by Harry and Rose
Ambrose who, alarmed at how much the children had forgotten while
in a Fairbanks orphanage, pulled them out of school and moved into
the Kaiyuh Mountains, 90 miles away from the nearest village, to
reteach them Athabascan ways and language.
Audrey furiously resisted one important life skill - sewing. "I
hated it!" she said, along with other indoor chores. She preferred
to be out on the land with her father and brothers. Her mother finally
relented and let the girl go outside to play and work with the boys.
was 28 when the sewing bug bit. She studied under Gwich'in elder
Charlotte Douthit and became passionate about traditional skin sewing
and bead working. "From then on I loved sewing," she said.
"It's my therapy."
passion struck in 1995, when she fished with a rod and reel for
the first time. "I was like in heaven." Now she camps
out at one of her favorite fishing spots every weekend during fishing
season. "I can stand in the water 10 hours a day."
Sept. 4, 2002, she'd just landed a late run salmon. "I held
the salmon up and the sun caught the beautiful rainbow of colors
of the fish skin," she wrote. "I knew then that I just
had to create something out of this."
first attempt - on display at her current show at the Alaska Native
Arts Foundation Gallery, 500 Sixth Ave. - was a small and clumsily
glued cup. For her second try, she used crude stitches. At each
step she learned something new and, less than a year later, one
of her fish skin baskets won the first place divisional prize for
Alaska Native arts at the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous Craft Show.
who now lives in Anchorage, found a mentor in the late Fran Reed.
Reed, a non-Native, had learned about fish skin baskets from Athabascan
elders in Fairbanks and took the craft into the realm of fine art.
By the time she died, Sept. 11, 2008, Reed had an international
reputation and a resume filled with awards.
was among a small group of women who took part in Reed's final workshop,
conducted last summer at Kasitsna Bay near Seldovia. "The most
uplifting, spiritual and awesome class I have ever taken,"
Armstrong said. "She showed us how to make an old style Athabascan
died of cancer before she could present a paper on fish skin garments
at a symposium held by the Textile Society of America, a organization
of leading fiber artists and experts. Her husband, Dick, was asked
to help find a replacement.
was getting a lot of inspiration from Fran for the previous five
years," he said. "Of the women at that last workshop,
all accomplished artists, Audrey was the single most advanced student
in fish skin basket making. Fran passed the baton on to Audrey at
the time came to give the paper, it was Armstrong who presented
it, "and she did a wonderful job," Dick Reed said.
then offers have poured in. Along with the other women who took
part in Reed's last workshop, she'll have work at a show at Homer's
Bunnell Arts Center in June titled "Skin Sisters." In
July she'll teach her own class in fish skin sewing, again at Kasitsna
Bay, then another class in Mendocino, Calif., and next year in New
Reed's work could be abstract - "artistic" as Armstrong
says - her own pieces have tended to reflect the practical origins
of the craft, bowls, baskets and such. Yet they all have the look
of sculpture. Armstrong's new work on display at the Alaska Native
Arts Foundation Gallery shows Reed's knack for adornment, with leather,
shells, feathers, stones, beads and designs worked into the basic
forms, all intended to convey additional layers of meaning.
grand "Chief's bowl," for example, which took her three
months to complete, uses king salmon skin, "because salmon
is the richest fish," and a dentalium shell necklace, symbol
of power and wealth among pre-contact Athabascans. "One shell
could be traded for three beaver pelts," Armstrong said. "So
you can see how valuable they were."
couple of the pieces are tributes to Reed, including a berry basket
decorated with bright beads, a nod to the "Happy Life Club"
- Reed's friends who dressed in colorful costumes for parties to
boost her spirits during her final illness. "I call it 'Fran's
Gathering Basket,'" Armstrong said. "She had a special
way of bringing people into her life and bringing people together."
there's a wall hanging titled "Fran's Embodiment." It
began as a series of strips, but took on a wave form that suggest
a human torso. Armstrong included heart shapes - "My heart
to her heart" - and flowers and dentalium, "signifying
her leadership as a teacher. She really preserved this art for us."
own baskets are now in the collections of the Alaska Federation
of Natives, Cook Inlet Regional Incorporated, Alaska Native Tribal
Health Consortium, Alaska Native Medical Center and private collections
around the nation.
individual pieces are often sold at Alaska Native Arts Foundation
Gallery and the Alaska Native Medical Center. You can find her at
a local salmon stream when the fish are running. Look for the sign
that says, "Free filleting if you let us keep your skins."
(Enough people don't like to clean their own fish that the advertising
works, she said.)
she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
she's usually backed up with special orders, she said. The exhibit
now at Alaska Native Arts Foundation Gallery was made possible in
part by an Individual Artist award from the Rasmuson Foundation.
61 and finally having my first solo art show," said Armstrong,
who recently retired from the medical profession after 35 years
in various office and administrative positions. "It's hard
one is more surprised than Rose Ambrose who had her first chance
to see her daughter's work on a recent trip to Anchorage.
and chuckling at the same time, she said, "What happened to
this little girl who hated to sew? Now look! Look at all the sewing!"