Arctic Treasures helps Alaskan carvers create art and new lives
The owner of an Anchorage store is giving back to his community by offering hope to Alaska Natives and other artisans with personal struggles.
Leon Kinneeveauk, who is Inupiaq from Kotzebue, bought Arctic Treasures Art Gallery last June. It’s a business that sells handcrafted art from all over Alaska.
Arctic Treasures’ previous owner was recently charged with creating some of the art himself and fraudulently selling it as Alaska Native.
The new owner says he is focusing on the future and using this store to help Alaskan Natives and other artisans get off the streets.
"The front here is sort of a gallery of different art from different areas in Alaska," said Kinneeveauk.
The store features ivory, soapstone and antler carvings along with whale bone masks and other unique pieces.
Since he’s owned Arctic Treasures, he says he’s seen many people facing many different struggles just outside his front door.
"Homelessness, addiction, mental illness, we see it every day,” he said.
He says many of them are Alaska Natives from the village.
"They come to the city in the hopes of doing good for their families, for themselves, and some things don't work out," Kinneeveauk said.
Kinneeveauk understands struggling; he has had some troubles of his own. He served time in prison for the murder of a Taco Bell employee in the early 2000s when he and two other men shot the victim through the drive-thru window. He says it was during his incarceration that he was inspired to create a place where people who struggle could help themselves and share their craft.
"What I noticed in the hobby shop was guys would get in there and they would start to feel stable," said Kinneeveauk.
Now he is offering a space for people to work and create and get a second chance at life.
There are 17 carvers who work at Arctic Treasures. At any time, visitors can go to the back of the store to see them at work through the window. Each one has a different way of carving and are from different parts of Alaska with different stories.
While working on carving an ivory halibut, Kyle Pungowiyi from Savoonga tells his story of how he has fallen into hard times with an addition to alcohol.
"I suffer a lot from alcohol abuse. Just being sober here and carving is a new life,” he said.
He says working at the shop for just a week gave him a new reason to stay sober. Now, he’s been sober for 10 months.
Timothy Lee Henry from Kiana also had a problem with addiction, but says learning to carve at an early age, and working with his hands and mind, has kept him sober.
"I do this to stay sober because my sobriety is one of the most important things in my life," said Henry.
He now has his own apartment and manages the building, something he says he would never be able to do before.
The store isn't just helping Alaska Natives. Troy Cozzen got into legal trouble at a young age.
"That's the only life I knew till I was 35 years old and I knew I was either going to die on the streets or in prison,” Cozzen said.
Prison is where he learned carving, a trade he didn’t know would help him on the outside. But he says that's what saved his life and helped him turn it around.
"Without this place I probably wouldn't have made it," said Cozzen.
All of the carvers take pride in the work that they do. For some, it is a way for financial means and a better life. For others, it is a way to preserve their culture.
Pungowiyi says carving is more than just making money; it's telling the story of his people that's been passed down for thousands of years.
"I hope to keep my heritage and my culture alive through each carving I make," he said.
With each piece of art they create, they’re all shaping their lives and finding the little treasures in life.
Kinneeveauk hopes to start a nonprofit called Alaska Arts Alliance aimed at fostering a sober environment where artists can focus on their culture and not their struggles.
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