“A lot of ideas just come to me. I’m always thinking about art,” Selina Alexander said. “When I go out in the woods, I’m always picking up feathers, rocks, shells, anything, and thinking how I could use it for art.”
Alexander describes herself as an Athabascan beadwork artist, but that’s only part of what she does. From her apartment studio in Fairbanks, she works with a blend of items gathered from Alaska’s wild lands as well as materials from craft shops and elsewhere to create clothing, mittens, boots, jewelry, dreamcatchers, and more that are steeped in tradition but also include modern flairs.
“I estimate that I work with maybe 2,000 different items,” Alexander said. This includes parts from moose, caribou, beaver, marten, lynx, bears, fish, birds, and more. “What’s so fun about the type of work I do is, there’s so many different products I work with,” she said. “There’s no end to how you can put things together to make something beautiful.”
Alexander was born into art. Her grandfather was Victor DeWilde, a well known California artist who did work in Alaska. Her parents were skilled as well. Her father built cabins, boats and other things, while her mother taught all her children sewing, beadwork, and more.
“I grew up between the ages of 1 and 9 on the Yukon River, between Ruby and Galena,” Alexander said of her earliest years. “And then we moved to Huslia.”
Her family practiced subsistence, meeting their needs from the land. This meant that everyone had to do everything. “The thing with mom and dad, the way they raised us, there wasn’t boy or girl work,” Alexander said. “The boys learned how to knit too. And as soon as we turned 11, we learned to shoot. Girl or boy. And we all worked. Mom taught all of us, and dad too.”
She continues to pursue subsistence despite living in the city, frequently going hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering. “I’m really into gathering my own food. For me it’s part of life.”
Alexander began learning her sewing and crafting skills at a young age from her mother. “I’m left handed. She’s right handed. So she had to sit across from me,” she recalled. “I started when I was 7.”
Alexander’s initial efforts at sewing involved making clothing for dolls, which led to her earliest professional success. “I was 13 when I sold my first piece of artwork. It was a fully dressed Barbie doll in Athabascan clothes. It had a squirrel skin parka and everything. I got $30 for it.”
As a young adult in 1980, Alexander came to Fairbanks, where she earned a degree at the university. She said she’s held a few jobs, but for most of her adult life has been self-employed as an artist, working in and expanding on traditional styles to create slippers, boots, vests and other items she makes to order. She also teaches these skills across the state, from small villages to Alaska’s largest cities.
Alexander said she launched her professional career as an artist selling her wares at bazaars, fairs, Alaska Federation of Natives conventions, and elsewhere. And she kept learning, both from fellow artists and from students in her classes.
Along with her parents, Alexander cited others she has earned from, particularly her late mother-in-law Charlotte Douthit, a Gwich’in elder who passed away last year. Alexander said there are noticeable differences between Gwiich’in styles and those found among the Koyukon people that she comes from. “Gwich’in have more uniform flowers, for instance,”she said. “You go over to Koyukon, and it’s more freeform.”
Another influence was her late sister Reba DeWilde, a noted Interior Alaska Native artist. “We learn from each other,” Alexander said, noting that she happily shares her knowledge with others so they can add their own takes and keep the styles alive and vibrant. “I don’t mind sharing it. My ideas or anything. I want people to learn. Just to keep passing it on.”
Caribou hair tufting, beadwork, and quill work are her primary subjects for teaching, and she especially enjoys teaching young people, who she said embrace traditions and expand on them, just as she has. “It’s amazing. They actually come up with their own designs. And I learn from them too.”
Alexander acquired some of these talents on her own.“I taught myself a lot of things,” she said. “For instance, the old style porcupine quill work, I taught myself to do that from a book. The caribou tufting I learned from a workshop many years ago.”
She explained that working with porcupine quills requires that they be soaked in water for about ten minutes, a process that makes them pliable and easy to manipulate. But if they are soaked too long, they decay and become useless. It’s one of those small but crucial details she passes on to students.
After being sidelined by health issues for a spell, Alexander recently came roaring back and was commissioned early this year to sew an intricately decorated moose hide vest for Chief PJ Simon, chief and chairman of Tanana Chiefs Conference. Alexander said her aunt, Gladys Derendoff, did the cache and cabin on the vest, an example of how she collaborates even with her own designs. She said she had to rush to have the vest prepared for its presentation in June. “I was literally sewing until two in the morning the day before.”
Simon said of the finished product, “I am forever grateful for the beautiful vest Selina made for me which includes a raven, lucky marten and cabin/cache. Her beadwork is of the highest mastery artist skill level and I am very proud to wear it to represent the Native people of the Interior.”
For Alexander, this is just one more example of how she keeps ancient styles vibrant and growing in the new millennium. “It’s always evolving,” she said. “You’re always learning. you’re never too old to learn. Never.”
Selina Alexander uses her Facebook page as a business website. It can be found at www.facebook.com/Selina-Alexander-Beadwork-100271378708853.