"To be honest with you, I don’t take myself too seriously. I just do what I enjoy,” Chuck Leake said. “I make stuff and if people like it they buy it.”
Despite his modesty, Leake is well known and highly regarded in Fairbanks. And for good reason. A master carver of ivory and bone, he’s built a 40-year career out of his pieces, which use prehistoric materials to tell stories through images.
“A lot of people get a regular job and do stuff on the side. But my work is my hobby. It’s what I enjoy,” he said.
Leake, who has a show at Well Street Art Company throughout November, is fascinated by Alaska’s natural history, and sculpts items from fossils that emerge from the ground beneath our feet. He uses whale bone, bison horns, ancient walrus ivory, and more. But he’s best known for working with the bones and ivory of woolly mammoths, which arrived in Alaska around 100,000 years ago, roaming across the landscape for 90,000 years before slowly going extinct. The last Alaska mammoths are believed to have died out around 3,700 BCE.
The connection between Alaska’s natural history and Leake’s present day artwork is most strikingly evident in a piece in the show called “The Path,” a diorama depicting a procession of woolly mammoths traveling through a ravine alongside a mountain. The scene is set into a woolly mammoth pelvis, which bears remarkable similarity to Alaska’s mountains, while the mammoths themselves are carved from mammoth leg bones, with tusks of mammoth ivory.
“I started buying and selling the mammoth ivory, and I started seeing things in it,” Leake said. “It’s slowly taken over everything I do.”
Leake grew up outside Prescott, Arizona, when it was still a small town. It was there, while in high school, that a teacher named Stan Harbour started him on his artistic path.
“He took me in and I became his assistant. I actually called him and thanked him. He’s passed away. He made a big difference in my life, seeing something in me,” Leake said. “I wasn’t the best student, but he encouraged me and allowed me to experiment. I really appreciate having a teacher who taught me.”
Leake said his parents encouraged learning and experience. By high school, he said, “I had an extreme wanderlust.” He spent two summer vacations hitchhiking through 45 states and parts of Canada. In 1971, he caught a ride in Edmonton Alberta with a teacher who was Alaska bound. Leake got all the way to Homer that summer. “I decided on that trip, when I was 17, I’m going to move to Alaska and be an Alaskan artist.”
Over the course of the 1970s, Leake spent summers in Alaska fighting forest fires. During that period he also worked at bronze foundries in Arizona where his vision began to crystalize. “I worked for a guy designing gift items when I got out of high school.”
In 1980, Leake married his wife Vicky and the couple moved to Alaska permanently. After their first child was born, he started making gift items and taking them to shops around Fairbanks, hoping to sell them. One day, he walked into TCR Ivory. “The guy gave me a piece of fossilized ivory and I carved a little old man out of it and sold it right away,” he recalled.
Leake took a job in the shop for about a year. In 1982, he went to work for himself, and has been doing so ever since. Four decades later, he sees no reason to let up. “You think life is going to slow down when you get older, but it doesn’t.”
Along with his artwork, Leake buys and sells ancient bone and ivory from his home. He said most of what he sells, he buys from miners who have unearthed it, and from residents of Native lands who find useful items. “This is one of the most fossil rich areas in the country.”
The 1989 global ban on African elephant ivory, and additional agreements that have gone into effect since, have been a boon for his business. No animals are harmed by selling ivory from a creature that’s been extinct for nearly 4000 years. “In the last 30 years I’ve bought somewhere between 50 and 80,000 pounds of mammoth ivory and sold it to knife makers in complete tusks.”
Mammoth ivory and bones aren’t the only ancient artifacts Leake has turned into artworks. Another piece in his show, “Raven,” is crafted from a bison horn. Even on it’s own the horn is notable, but closer inspection shows the face of a raven at its tip, swooping downward.
“If you mounted that on the base without the carving, it would look really neat,” Leake said. “But to make it more acceptable and presentable, I had to add something. A lot of times the piece will tell you what it wants you to do to it.” Hence, in this piece, Alaska’s most ubiquitous wild animal is represented in a fossil from an animal that was once quite prevalent here itself.
Leake also has some abstract pieces in the show. At the center of the gallery, a piece titled “Cosmic Birth 1” is composed of an upright mammoth pelvis with an orb of polished calcite emerging from a socket. It takes on the appearance of a planet being born in a galaxy, arguably depicting an even earlier stage of Alaska’s natural history than the mammoths do.
“The younger people really connect more with the more simple, sort of abstract pieces,” he said, explaining that he wants to find ways to broaden both his work and his audience. “If somebody can look at something and use their imagination, that’s a plus to me.”
Looking back on his five decades in Alaska, Leake said, “I have made my living, believe it or not, carving and working for myself. I’ve had some lean years, but I’ve had mostly good years. Fairbanks has been good to me.”