Nathan Jackson, a Ketchikan-based traditional woodcarver and sculptor, was recently named, a 2021 USA Fellow by United States Artists.
In a phone interview with the Juneau Empire shortly after United States Artists announced his award, he shared his thoughts on the honor, his career, advice for young artists, pandemic life, and some of his favorite Juneau-based projects.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How did it feel to hear that you had been named a 2021 USA Fellow?
I pinched myself. It was good.
How will you spend the $50,000 in prize money?
All I want to do is improve my shop. I don’t plan on doing much more than that. The workshop is connected to the house through the garage. It has a little bit of a small loft upstairs, and then it has a little space downstairs and a wooden stove. We are considering taking materials that we have available to make steps upstairs instead of a ladder. A ladder makes it much easier to get up to the loft. The loft has a desk and a bed for artists who come through and need a place to stay. We want to make it more comfortable. We might consider new lighting, that type of thing.
Do you have any big projects on the horizon?
I don’t think I have anything in particular. I have a pie in the sky book, and people put in for different projects. I look at the book to see who is next on the list. I call them up and ask if they are still interested.
One of the things that have been pretty interesting is cleaning out the shop and discovering old sketches I have not used. I’m trying to figure out which would be suitable for projects. Usually, I do things according to various clans, and several ideas came about because of knowing the clan system and the stories connected with that clan. In some cases, the drawing identifies those people. Some of it has great meaning. I will keep them around for a while and see which stick out as I start a new project.
What drives you?
Making people happy is basically it. I did portraits a long time ago. Some of the portraits were good and some were bad. I thought, “I’m going to quit this business for a bit.” But then, when I was teaching art, my boss said, “I don’t think you want to do artwork all the time. You should go out and have some fun now and then.” I thought, “Oh, brother,” and I continued doing art because there was a limited amount of time, and I wanted to spend it on art.
What are your favorite types of projects?
My favorite is wood. It’s free. Wood is good. I enjoy working with it.
What advice do you have for young artists?
Be able to draw. Any time you are doing a small project or a big project, drawing is the skill you need.
Any memories of working in Juneau that you can share?
I was working in Wrangell on a project. Steve Brown was heading up a project on the Juneau Empire building. This was 1986. He had a couple of carvers. He called and asked me to come to Juneau. They paid my way up, so I dropped what I was working on and drew up ideas on the building. They had oval-shaped design boxes across the building. I said maybe making a TV shape instead of an oval, like a rectangle with rounded corners, that’s better. So, the shape of everything changed as it’s easier to fill in this space than an oval shape.
I did the little totem pole, and I worked on the outside of the building, which had bronze and stainless steel. The models are relatives on my father’s side of the family. My uncle had a whole bunch of daughters. One of them had twins, and many of the things they do are controversial. I used the twins as subject matter. One was pointing at the world and its controversies.
How are you holding up through the COVID-19 pandemic and all the related restrictions?
I got my second shot, and I feel pretty good. But, I’m going to end up using a mask for a while longer and keeping away from large crowds.
•Contact Dana Zigmund @email@example.com or 907-308-4891.