An artist in Alaska: Inspired by the land and the people

For a second year, Studio Incamminati Instructor Natalie Italiano has taught an In Your Town workshop in Haines, Alaska. In this essay, she shares her impressions of the experience.

For a second year, Studio Incamminati Instructor Natalie Italiano has taught an In Your Town workshop in Haines, Alaska. In this essay, she shares her impressions of the experience. “Alaska is a heady experience, filled with beauty, wildness, and a history that feels close to the present.”  

Haines, Alaska, is a magical place, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, glaciers and the inland waterway of southeast Alaska. I saw bears and eagles in flight. I learned firsthand that a moose is so tall, the bottom of his belly is the height of a Subaru. Everywhere, the growth is lush and beautiful, reminding me of the set of a Tolkien film.

You feel far from civilization, and there is good reason. The two-day journey there was long and involved three planes, an overnight in Juneau and a four-hour ferry ride up the inland waterway, during which we saw only the mountains and pristine water. The people on the ferry came from around the globe. With their sturdy hiking boots and other outdoor equipment, they appeared rugged and prepared for the wilderness. Families could camp on the deck of the ferry and stay aboard for days as it headed north. This is Alaska, the Last Frontier, where the rules are a little different.

This summer was the fourth that Haines has hosted a Studio Incamminati In Your Town workshop. Donna Catotti, the Alaska ambassador for the Portrait Society of America, is the host of these workshops. The Catotti-Goldberg Art Studio, run by Donna and husband Rob, an artist and luthier, contribute to the cultural and artistic life of Haines and Southeastern Alaska. Last year I taught a Costumed Portrait workshop, and we had the privilege of having two members of the Southeastern Alaska native Tlingit tribe pose in tribal regalia: the personal ceremonial costumes they make and wear for tribal ceremonies. Their traditional Native-American customs and ceremonies are very much alive in Alaska.

One of the Native-American models, Jack Strong, posed for me at the local Sheldon Museum for a two-evening demo. His tribal regalia included boots, a headdress and a drum and Abalone shells adorned his clothing. We were surrounded by artifacts from the Tlingit tribe, and I encouraged him to share stories—something he embraced. Punctuated by several beats on his drum, he related stories of his youth, his ancestors and of their dreams. Sometimes singing punctuated a narrative. The drumbeats signaled the end of each story. Everyone was enthralled during his three hours of storytelling. Helen, the museum director and a workshop participant, scrambled for a video camera to record this experience of living history.

One of the most compelling, although tragic, stories involved his grandmother. When she was young, children were forced to attend English-speaking schools in an attempt to wipe out the native cultural traditions. In a brutal attempt to eliminate the native language, her tongue was slit from underneath prohibiting her from making certain sounds in the Tlingit language. A low drumbeat ended that story. No one spoke for a while. His tales were accompanied by a lot of body movement making painting from life a quite a challenge. My demo was merely okay, but no one cared. The entire workshop was elated to be part of such a unique and intimate experience of being connected to Tlingit tribal history and life.

The tribal masks workshop students painted were from Alaskan Indian Arts, an informal museum and arts center on the grounds of historic Fort Seward. The now-decommissioned fort was established in 1902 as a response to the lawlessness of the Klondike Gold Rush and the US/Canada border disputes. The museum is housed in a rambling, historic wood building, and holds Tlingit artifacts, a totem-building studio, and a local artist’s jewelry studio. Many artifacts, including headdresses, moccasins, masks, drums and other ceremonial items, though housed in the museum, are still used by the tribe for cultural and sacred ceremonies.

Each mask represents a different animal spirit, and is part of the religious and ceremonial culture of the Tlingit Indians. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology contains a large collection of Tlingit artifacts and sacred objects. When I tell the Alaskan Indian Arts director I’m from Philadelphia, his first response is that the museum there has a number of local Tlingit artifacts which many would like to see repatriated. I cringe and wonder how to respond. Do I apologize? Are they safer there? Should I promise to liberate them when I return home? There are no easy answers.

Alaska is a heady experience, filled with beauty, wildness, and a history that feels close to the present. I feel the pull that has drawn so many people there, including famed environmentalist John Muir, and so many artists and craftsmen that want not only to create, but to live close to the earth.

View Natalie's work.