AK Art: For Sugpiaq carver, family fuels drive
Andrew Abyo hasn’t been carving his whole life, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at his work.
The Sugpiaq woodcarver didn’t discover he had a knack for building things until 2005 when he attended a workshop at the Alaska Native Heritage Center (ANHC) in Anchorage.
A lot has happened since then. Thursday, it was Abyo who was offering his knowledge at the heritage center. He had a station set up in the sunny outdoors to show people how to make bird rattles as part of ANHC’s Summer of Alaska Native Art.
While describing his work, Abyo showed off creations he’s made for different family members. A custom-made rattle for his 3-month-old daughter, small enough to fit in her tiny hand. An 11-foot kayak built for his son when he was 5 years old.
Family is the reason Abyo is where he is today, he said. The workshop he attended in 2005 was taught by his uncle Peter Lind, a well-established Alaska Native artist who has been teaching how to make Native art for decades. The same Thursday Abyo was set up outside at the center, Lind was posted up indoors. He sat at a table that displayed artwork made by him and his wife and chatted with the tourists as they meandered through.
Back in 2005, Abyo first tried his hand at carving an atlatl. Then, a bentwood visor — worn by Sugpiaq hunters to offer glare protection and serve as a status symbol. From there, his passion grew as he began to learn more about carving and more about his culture.
“I just discovered it was natural inside me,” he said. “And I didn’t even know.”
Abyo kept his 9-5 job at Alaska Mill Feed and Garden Center, but he carved in his spare time.
Sometime around 2006, he said he was shopping at Sears with his wife when he decided to take the plunge to pursue art full time.
His first Fur Rondy was a turning point, he said, when he set up shop amongst all the established artists. Today, his work can be seen at various Alaska Native regional corporations, a museum in Japan, ANHC and in Hawaii, Ireland, Vancouver and California.
Eventually, Abyo discovered his favorite thing to make: kayaks. In 2008, he helped build one at the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association culture camp in Anchorage, which people can attend to learn about Aleut culture.
Abyo was excited to help out with making another kayak in 2009, but was encouraged to make his own, which he did. Today, the kayaks are part of who he is.
Abyo uses ballistic nylon, which is essentially sailboat cloth, for the outside of the kayak. Traditionally, Steller sea lion, seal or walrus would have been used for the exterior and it would have taken up to a year for the kayak to be made. That’s because one hunter was responsible for building it all. It was viewed as a rite of passage, Abyo said.
The frame is built traditionally though. Red cedar is used for the overall structure and yellow cedar makes up the ribs.
“Everything is tied, everything is lashed,” Abyo said. “We don’t use nails or glue.”
His uncle is the reason he tried carving in the first place, but his children are what motivated him to learn more about where he came from.
“One of the reasons I started learning more about my culture and my history is so I could teach them,” Abyo said of his five children, whose ages range from 3 months to 18 years old.
He doesn’t just teach his own children. The cycle has come full circle as Abyo, the former student, now passes on his knowledge to others. Last winter, he traveled to villages around the state and taught people how to make bentwood visors. In Anchorage, he stays busy by hosting workshops through ANHC, the Anchorage School District and the Anchorage Museum.
Teaching is a rewarding experience Abyo said he’s happy to be a part of.
“It’s a way for me to pass on tradition to others,” he said.