The comfortable modesty and vivid colors throughout the house where Terresa White spends her time is a reflection of her imaginative personality and her continually growing relationship with her Eskimo heritage.
[half]The walls in each individual room are consistently transforming as she creates beautifully haunting masks that are reminiscent of both her Yup’ik background and her fascination with animals.
White explains that she gets inspiration for her masks and sculptures from various tales shared with her by her grandmother. Many of these stories express the consequences of beneficial or harmful choices made by their characters and often include surreal transformations.
“I think the stories are fascinating and scary in a good way,” says White. “They make me think about what it is to be something else. I really think of animals as having the same kind of life and the same personhood as we do.”
Looking around the room, White reflects on on her Eskimo background, as the wall looks back at her through the hollowed-out eyes of her art.
“The stories that I read were from little books given to me by my granny. Some of them are pretty graphic and… they’re odd,” White, sitting modestly in a corner of her designated studio in her home, explains her attraction to a very specific type of cautionary tale. She speaks passionately about the most memorable stories with authentic belief in their truth.“…They really make me think if they did happen, what would it be like?”
White has spent years creating, selling, and reimagining her own version of Yup’ik masks with new concepts and personal vision. “Playing with ceramic clay, making masks, feels like a dog digging a bone buried deep in the yard,” White explains. “It’s an urgent unearthing, a sometimes frenzied communication with the material to find a story which is distant and unknowable until it arrives. Making masks feels necessary to me, compulsory. Each mask answers a call.”
As White works, casually moving about her space and occasionally pulling out another tool or item to assist her with the project at hand, she speaks distractedly about the process of the additive art.
I observe her in her studio, beginning with a block of clay, and then half of that block, altering and distorting it until it is an appropriate shape. If it weren’t for the changing position of the sun and the shifting of the shadows in the room, it would almost seem like the transformation of the clay in White’s hands was effortless and completed in the blink of an eye.[/half][half][/half]
[full]While subdued earth tones are consistent throughout all of White’s masks, the expressions remain powerful, and each individual piece seems to have a personality. They reflect a combination of Alaska Native and Northwest Coast Native design and are sculpted with a locally-mixed clay. The empty eyes, still full of expression, and the shaping of the nose, combined with the story that White has attempted to push and mold into the deepest pockets of the clay with her dampened fingers, help to create characters and a plethora of open-ended, untold narratives.
White explains that she has begun to work more with figures and hopes to steer her creative future in that direction. “Figure sculpting is a different experience. The communication is less like a conversation with clay and more like a dance, a story danced into form, a rhythm that moves through me into it. I am thrilled by the figures of animal and human people.”
Having been raised in a small town just outside of Portland, OR and having had few early encounters with Alaskan Natives outside her family, White expresses a struggle with her own cultural identity in her early life. As a young adult she worried that she lacked values and felt disconnected with the dominant culture she was surrounded by. “I saw a mentor to talk about my concerns and she suggested I write down the standards by which I would raise my own child and I thought, okay I can do that,” White laughs. “When I brought the list back, she asked me if I realized that everything on it was consistent with Eskimo culture and Native values.” Many members of White’s family still live in Alaska and in the village of Bethel, where her family originated. Bethel is the main port on the Kuskokwim River and is an administrative and transportation hub, accessible only by air and river. The village was built by European-Americans moving into the area and the Yup’ik people living nearby were relocated there from their original village at the other side of the Kuskokwim. Southwestern Alaska was home to the Yup’ik people for thousands of years before missions were established and Christianity began to be woven into the native culture. The cultural influence and development introduced by newcomers caused social and cultural disruption amongst Alaska Natives.[/full]
[two-thirds]Two generations ago, White’s grandmother and aunts were sent to boarding schools where they were forced to dismiss their Yup’ik language, dances, and cultural traditions. These women culture-bearers moved to the lower 48 as young adults and brought with them the burden of shame bred by the repression of their culture. Yet a quiet sense of pride in their cultural heritage kept the stories and traditions alive in White’s family. As White grew up, she was exposed to Yup’ik culture and learned about the family histories only in circumstances of everyday lessons.
“Traditionally, masks would be made for a dance by the Shaman, after which they’d be discarded” White explains. Masks were only meant to tell a story through Yup’ik tribal dances, an important part of the culture. Meanwhile, European-American culture became fascinated with the emotive and poignant masks and began to collect, sell, and display them as art. Some Alaska Native mask-makers and artisans responded by making masks for display only.
The Burke Museum in Seattle, WA, boasting an ethnology collection of over 42,000 objects, allowed White to visit on a Bill Holm Center research grant. Over three days spent looking at multiple artifacts, she hoped to feel closer to her family and learn more about traditional design and technique used for sculptures and masks. “Mine are contemporary, exploring traditional themes and their interplay, confluence and divergence, with my urban life in Oregon.”Whi te’s mother accompanied her to the museum. Together, they were overwhelmed with the tools, dolls and artistic sculptures in the collection. The ancestral objects they studied held significance as they explored the material culture and memories of their own history.
White currently has plans to collaborate on a building installation downtown Portland that is meant to be an interpretation of movement and travel, on both a spiritual and literal level. “We will use the fusion of art and material culture through architectural design and sculpture to engage the casual viewer as well as the art-lover physically, intellectually, and emotionally,” White explains. The installation will be in the Mead Building Window Gallery May 2015 through October 2015.[/two-thirds][one-third][/one-third]
[full]Images of White’s work, contact information and her personal blog can be found on her website at www.terresawhite.com.[/full]
Story and photography by Alyssa Burkett