The CIRI Foundation delivers first grants in new program to support art, culture

CIRI descendant Joel Isaak's fish skin art displayed at the Alaska Native Arts Foundation in 2013. Photo by Jason Moore.
CIRI descendant Joel Isaak’s fish skin art displayed at the Alaska Native Arts Foundation in 2013. Photo by Jason Moore.

An ancient art form now experiencing a resurgence among Alaska Native people; a group of master artists passing their knowledge on to a new generation: These two projects are the first recipients of The CIRI Foundation’s (TCF) new A Journey to What Matters: Alaska Native Art and Cultures grant, a program that supports Alaska Native arts and culture.

A total of $48,637 was split between the Alaska Native Arts Foundation (ANAF), for its Master Artist Workshop and Business Training in fish skin sewing, to be held in Bethel; and the Alaska Native Heritage Center (ANHC), for a project that will help master artists transfer their skills and knowledge to a new generation of artists.

“The fish skin medium was almost a lost art form,” said ANAF Executive Director Trina Landlord. “It’s only recently that the medium has revived. The grant gives artists an opportunity to share this tradition.”

ANAF’s workshop, scheduled for February 2014, brings together several organizations, including the University of Alaska Fairbank’s Native Art Center, the Alaska State Council on the Arts and the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center in Bethel. “Partnering with so many organizations allows us to really maximize the benefit of the funding that’s available,” explained TCF Program Officer Nadia Jackinsky-Sethi.

The workshop, which will be led by CIRI descendant Joel Isaak and Marlene Nielsen, will include business training that will teach participating artists to market their work. “This component of the project makes art something that sustains the artists economically, as well as culturally,” said Jackinsky-Sethi.

At ANHC, the TCF grant will help bring 36 master artists and 15 apprentices to Anchorage this summer for the Center’s 15th anniversary celebration. The apprentices will work with established artists in a variety of media and forms while tourists at the Center look on and learn about traditional Native art.

2013 ANHC master carver and teacher Andrew Abyo. Courtesy of ANHC.
2013 ANHC master carver and teacher Andrew Abyo. Courtesy of ANHC.

“The grant will provide for intergenerational learning as Alaska Native artists engage in their art form and apprentices learn traditional and contemporary art practices from the masters themselves,” said ANHC Director of Arts and Education Steven Alvarez.

The project will culminate in the creation of new artwork made by the master artists and add to ANHC’s permanent collection. “Visitors to the Center will get a rare glimpse of Alaska Native culture being alive and thriving, and they’ll have the opportunity to see who we are as a people,” said Alvarez.

The application period for the next round of A Journey to What Matters grants is now open. “With this opportunity,” said Jackinsky-Sethi, “we’re able to expand the involvement of and direct impact upon Alaska Native communities throughout the state.” TCF encourages nonprofits and tribal organizations to apply for a grant by March 1.

For more information on applying for a grant, visit