Southeast skin artist chosen for Native arts residency

Peter Williams displays his sea otter products during a market at Juneau's Centennial Hall. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)
Peter Williams of Sitka displays his seal and sea otter products during the 2013 Juneau Public Market at the capital city’s Centennial Hall. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

A Southeast Alaska skin-sewer is one of four Alaska artists recently chosen for out-of-state residencies.

Yup’ik artist Peter Williams of Sitka will go to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, under the Rasmuson Foundation-funded program.

“I hunt seals and sea otters and I make handicrafts out of the furs of the animals that I harvest,” Williams said. “And I also do a lot of work with expressing and celebrating spiritual connections and relationships with nature.”

The skin artist will spend most of January and February at the institute. He says he’ll work on expanding the range of what he makes, which includes seal and sea otter vests, hats, earrings and headbands.

“As someone who harvests their own art material and I run my own microbusiness and I do a lot of subsistence activities in Sitka and spend a lot of time being spread thin in different areas, I don’t find a lot of time to sit down and create and design new products,” he said.

Peter Williams, right, poses with models Jerica Young, Anthony Flora and Denise Reed, at TechStyle NYC during this year's Fashion Week. (Photo courtesy TechStyle NYC)
Peter Williams, right, poses with models Jerica Young, Anthony Flora and Denise Reed, at TechStyle NYC during this year’s Fashion Week. (Photo courtesy TechStyle NYC)

Williams said those include seal and leather mittens and military-style bill caps.

He also wants to expand into men’s ware, starting with scarves. And there’s more.

“I’m sewing sea otter footwear and have been researching the traditional ways of making footwear. I’m interested in both, doing the traditional sealskin boots, but also in incorporating sealskin into something more modern like a sneaker,” he said.

Seals and sea otters are protected marine mammals, but they’re not endangered in the waters where Williams hunts. Coastal Alaska Natives are allowed to hunt some species for food, clothing, art and crafts.

The Institute of American Indian Arts, where Williams will have his residency, is a four-year college that’s a gathering place of students and skilled artists from tribal groups across the United States.

“It’s a great opportunity to network with other artists that are there in residency, with the community of Santa Fe, with other organizations, and to kind of learn and grow through experience as an artist and from other artists and cultures,” Williams said.

Others chosen for next year’s Rasmuson residency program are Fairbanks printmaker Sara Tabbert, Cordova writer Rosemary McGuire and Anchorage visual artist Sheila Wyne.

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