FAIRBANKS — Think of Stonehenge, Easter Island, the Sphinx, the Statue of Liberty and Michaelangelo’s “David.” What do all these creations have in common? They are all examples of sculpture.
Humans are driven to create art. Cave paintings in France and Spain date back more than 40,000 years. Lines drawn on rocks found in South Africa were put there 70,000 years ago by a human’s hand. Three-dimensional art was also being created in prehistoric times. Sculpture is three-dimensional art made by carving, modelling, casting or constructing. “Venus” figurines, small statues portraying female figures, were created of bone or other materials and are some of the earliest examples of sculpture. “The Venus of Hohle Fells,” a 35,000 to 40,000 year old figure found in Germany, was made of mammoth ivory.
Today, sculpture comes in many forms and is made out of almost any material imaginable. At the University of Alaska Museum of the North, guests can see artists’ creative endeavors made from whale bone, ivory, stone, nails, fish skin and more. The museum is exploring sculpture during hands-on family programs in January.
Two thousand years ago, in the Bering Strait region, an artist carved a piece of ivory into a figure. The small statue appears to be a long-faced woman with a mammal upon the abdomen. In much later times, the carving was unearthed by Otto Geist and given the nickname “Okvik Madonna.” Okvik refers to the early phase of the Old Bering Sea culture in northern Alaska and northeastern Siberia, about 2,000 years ago. The term “Madonna” references an icon from Christian traditions, though the two have nothing to do with each other. The so called Okvik Madonna is on view in the Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery. The ancient face seems as expressive as more well-known artworks like the famed “Mona Lisa.”
More is known about the origin of more contemporary sculptures on display. One example depicts UAF’s mascot, the Nanook or polar bear. Husband and wife sculptors Jacques and Mary Regat created the large statue “Arctic Shadow.” Jacques Regat began his career in France. He moved to Alaska and studied both art and anthropology at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Mary Regat moved to Alaska from Minnesota in 1963 and starting carving on Prince of Wales Island, making a canoe. Once in Anchorage, she studied at the University of Alaska Anchorage and began sculpting stone. The two now work together in bronze, silver, wood and paint. The Regats sculpted “Arctic Shadow” in 1996. This bronze bear was dedicated to Binky, a polar bear who came to the Anchorage Zoo as an orphaned cub and lived there until his death in 1995. Grace Schaible donated “Arctic Shadow” to the museum in 1997.
Other examples of sculpture at the museum include ivory carvings big and small, wooden and bone sculptures, mixed-media creations, a basket form sculpture made of fish skin and hog gut, and baby ravens formed from nails.
Rachelle Dowdy primarily makes sculptural images of birds or animal-human hybrids. Born in Fairbanks, Dowdy studied and taught at UAF and now lives in Ester. Her sculptures can be found throughout the state, including at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center in Fairbanks, and at the UA Museum of the North. “Baby Raven #1,” “#2,” and “#3” were created in 2007 and take their shape from nails pieced together.
Sculpture can be experienced outdoors also. The season for ice sculptures is upon us. Even the neighborhood snowman is and example of sculpture! Outdoor sculptures that are meant to last are made of more resilient materials. Large sculptures on the museum grounds include wooden totem poles and metal artworks. Despite the name, “Totem” by Bernard Hosey does not resemble the traditional Tlingit totem poles made of Western red cedar. Instead, Hosey’s “Totem” is a 34-foot steel sculpture with sweeping lines reminiscent of whale ribs.
Sculptures come in many sizes, forms and materials. Many endure and connect us to cultures of the past. Others are ephemeral. Sculpture is an ancient art that continues to evolve and push boundaries.
Jennifer Arseneau is the education and public programs manager for the UA Museum of the North. She can be reached at 474-6948.