Susan Stark Christianson was in Australia when she found out she was awarded a Rasmuson Foundation Fellowship.
That distinction and the $18,000 that came with it ensured it was not her only documentary-making trip in 2018. Christianson, who is working on a a film focusing on indigenous peoples’ prophesies and their role in the modern world, also traveled to Arizona to visit with a Hopi elder and to Japan for a gathering of indigenous people.
“It (the Japan trip) was an absolute highlight of my life,” Christianson told the Capital City Weekly.
Now, the Juneau resident is back in town and chipping away at editing footage and interviews. While Christianson said she’s still a long way off from finished with her yet-untitled project, it’s progressing more quickly than her last documentary, “The Wisdom of The Grandmothers.”
“‘The Wisdom of the Grandmothers’ took 10 years, and I don’t think this one is going to take that long,” Christianson said. “The Rasmuson Fellowship was an amazing boost toward accomplishing what I was able to accomplish.”
While Christianson was the only local artist to be awarded a fellowship in 2018, she was not the only one whose work received help from the Anchorage-based foundation’s Individual Artist Awards in 2018.
In total, 35 Alaskan artists from 12 communities were selected from more than 400 applications and announced as fellowship or project award winners in 2018. Of those 35, six —Christianson, Emily Wall, Merry Ellefson, Alsion Marks, Ricky Tagaban and Roblin Gray Davis — were listed as either Juneau or Douglas residents who won Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Awards.
The funds allowed them to pursue stage shows, making a documentary, writing, weaving, drag and carving.
A panel of 13 artists, scholars and art community leaders from the Lower 48 reviewed the hundreds of applications to select the awardees.
“I think it’s really important to acknowledge the rich arts community we have in Juneau,” Ellefson said. “I think it goes back, way back, to the first people. It really speaks to what we value in the community, and I’m proud of that.”
Given time and space to make progress
Ellefson, who earned a project award to develop a performance piece about a man who was lost on an ice floe near King Island for 18 days in 1949, said the award allowed her to travel to Nome to better connect to the setting of her work.
“The Seward Peninsula is a different time and place in the world,” Ellefson said.
She said she’s making progress on the work and is developing the ideas that will make the piece more than a survivor’s tale.
“The story to me is a spring board for a lot of ideas going through my head,” Ellefson said.
In addition to allowing travel, Ellefson said her award gave her time to pursue the project, which has been gestating for nearly 20 years.
Roblin Gray Davis, who earned a project award to create a new solo show in the style of a contemporary theatrical clown, said the result is a piece with the working title “Soaked” that he expects to premiere in Juneau in spring.
“I have taken a few workshops over the last few years that is guiding my creativity, thanks also to support from the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council,” Davis said. ” Although it is a solo performance, I have been working with many colleagues in Alaska and Outside to create the original material — Darius Mannino, Tim Lash, Elizabeth Pisel-Davis, Chris Kaufmann, Emily Windover, Jed Hancock-Brainerd and Rebecca Noon. My challenge with this project is to search for a stronger understanding of my personal aesthetic as a devising performance artist and to solidify my approach to creating original theatrical material.”
Davis said he’s developed about five characters, including one with a red nose, and it’s been a blast to perform in the style of a theatrical clown.
“I love it more than any other theatrical territory,” Davis said. “My hopes are to continue to develop these character performances and have a set of performances ready to go when needed, tour the show in Alaska and down south in the real world, maybe even internationally at festivals for similar work.”
Wall, who is an associate professor of English for University of Alaska Southeast and a poet, and received $7,500 in project funding for a collection of poetry based on Georgia O’Keefe, said being able to hunker down and write has been incredibly helpful.
Wall has used her award money for purchasing books, but she also booked a Juneau hotel for a weekend residency. There, she spread out her research resources and wrote for about 12 hours each day.
“This money has been so valuable,” Wall said. “I’ve never been able to work like this. If people are thinking about it or have maybe applied before, they should do it again because it’s so worth it.”
Project and fellowship award applications for 2019 will be accepted Jan. 15-March 1. Applications will be available online or by request. Individual Artist Awards are open to artists 18 or older who have lived in Alaska for at least two years. Students in an artistic discipline or degree-seeking program are ineligible.
Wall said she is now about halfway finished with her poetry collection, and that progress wouldn’t have come without the award.
“It’s like Christmas morning all the time,” Wall said.
Out of Survival mode
Young artists such as Tagaban, who received a project award to further his work in both drag and Chilkat weaving, and Marks, who received a project award to pursue relief carving — carving figures into flat panels of wood — and creating a bentwood box for Yakutat, both said the funds have been incredibly helpful.
“It just takes the edge off having your entire income be your art,” Tagaban said.“You’re not in survival mode at all.”
Tagaban said 2018 was a productive year for him. He spun more than 1,000 yards of collected mountain goat wool and participated in a number of drag shows, including a medical fundraiser at the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall, which furthered Tagaban’s goal of indigenizing drag.
“The fundraiser we did for Mary, that was totally within my vision,” Tagaban said.
He has not yet secured studio space but said it remains a goal, and he is excited to eventually begin working on a full-sized Chilkat robe.
Marks, who in 2018 became the first recorded female Tlingit carver to create and raise a totem pole, said her bentwood box project is still destined for Yakutat, but work on it will pick up intensity in spring.
“I’ll be able to really get going on the final project in March, I’ve been prepping for a solo show at the Anchorage Museum, it opens on Feb. 1,” Marks said. “My project is not complete yet, but the award has been a fantastic boost. Self-employment is a lot of hours working in solitude, and the lack of co-workers to connect with is hard.”
Marks said she was glad to see who comprised her fellow Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Award winners and is excited to see the eventual completed work.
“Southeast seems pretty well represented,” Marks said. “I’m also pleased to see so many women represented. I’m looking forward to seeing all the awardee’s finished projects.”
• Contact arts and culture reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.