One hundred and fifty years ago, the United States purchased Alaska from the Czar of Russia for $7.2 million dollars.
Settlers were granted citizenship, but the native peoples of Alaska were not. Despite being the true owners, they got nothing.
Americans in 1867 read about the transaction in their newspapers, but their political cartoonists gave them more to think about. They predicted ridiculous expense for taxpayers, bizarre difficulties, and that only a few would profit.
Recently, I was invited to take part in an exhibition about the Alaska Purchase and its effects.
I wondered, if I could time-travel back to 1867, what cartoon would I submit?
I wanted my cartoon to illustrate the parts of Alaska that could not be bought or sold.
I started by sketching a woman weaving a basket, with spokes reaching into space and time. Alaskan life, culture, and natural phenomena radiate from her work.
As I drew, migrating species appeared: terns, cranes, swans, whales, caribou, and seals. Then, traders, tourists, and technology joined the picture. Around it all, I sketched the oceans, rivers, wind, and weather flowing through the so-called “possession”, Alaska. I also included signs of disruption from distant sources.
Like an old fashioned cartoonist, I put labels into my drawing.
The words “CLAIM EXPLOIT BUY SELL” characterized the purposes of the treaty, as I understood it.
I practiced writing with 19th c fonts. After printing them in reverse, I tried writing left to right, as printers must. Look at the word “children” above to see my first attempt. Humbling!
(Around that time, I was driving my car and noticed an unfamiliar manufacturer’s name on the car just ahead: ATOYOT. Unusual, I thought, where was that car made? That’s your brain on printmaking.)
The research phase: Google, museums, books.
I adapted photos of designer Wally Byam’s early tear drop Airstream trailer, a Yamaha ATV, the whaleship Charles W Morgan, located at the Mystic Seaport Museum, and whale stamps from the Martha’s Vineyard Museum whaling logbook collection. I scrolled through endless photos of birds in flight, salmon, rubber duckies, athletic shoes, plastic water bottles, and historic photos and film clips of indigenous Arctic hunters.
At the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, I sketched the Aleutian kayak and kayaker gear (hats, seal gut jackets, throwing harpoons) and cedar bark hats from Southeast Alaskan coastal communities. The beautiful drawings in William D Berry’s 1954-1956 Alaska Field Sketches helped me to envision the caribou.
I found an Imperial Russian Eagle and an American Eagle that 19th c Americans would have recognized, then I enlarged their talons to fit the occasion.
With scissors and tape, I assembled the design, then traced it onto one sheet.
Having coated my copper plate with wax, I transferred the drawing onto it. Then I drew the design through the wax with a steel needle. After nearly an hour in the etching solution, the lines were well bitten into the metal, and I could remove the the wax. (More on etching in this post.)
The etched plate, ready for ink.
(The shape at the bottom is my camera’s reflection in the bright copper.)
Time to print!
I lay the inked plate on the press, with a wet sheet of printing paper over it, and sent it through. Under pressure, the wet paper picked up the ink in the etched grooves.
It’s always a thrill to pull an etching off the press for the first time!
plate mark 16 x 13, printed on Somerset Velvet 250 gsi paper, edition of 10
This print is available through October 28, 2017, at International Gallery of Contemporary Art, Anchorage, AK.
It is part of the exhibition Intercurrents: The Alaska Treaty of Cession. The show, curated bye Pat Shelton, features the work of a number of prominent Alaskans, including Fred Anderson, Graham Dane, Dr. Dr Dalee Sambo Dorough, Hal Gage, Ted Gardeline, Donna Goldsmith, Sven Haakanson, Joan Kane, Karl Koett, Linda Infante Lyons, Don Mohr, Austin Parkhill, David Pettibone, Joe Senungetuk, Martha Senungetuk, and Pat Shelton.