Story last updated at 2:45 p.m. Thursday, October 10, 2002

Mask Metaphors
by Carey James
Staff Writer

photo: entertainment

  Photo by Carey James, Homer News
Jim Miller fits feathers into a mask last week at Ptarmigan Arts Back Room Gallery shortly before his month-long art show opened.  
At his home in Port Graham, artist Jim Miller displays some of his traditional Eskimo Aleut carved masks. From time to time, he moves them around, and when he does, the masks seem to look different. At the same time, the rooms adjust slightly to the new faces.

It's as if the personality of the mask impacts the space, and vice-versa, he said.

Miller said he began carving more than a decade ago as a hobby, drawing from traditional images of his Yupik and Aleut heritage and adding his own thoughts to the face.

His masks range from brightly colored expressive faces to natural wood images. Feathers, animal images and traditional Native symbols are prevalent.

photo: entertainment

  Photo by Carey James, Homer News
Miller's masks draw from both contemporary experiences and traditional images  
"When I was growing up in Southeast Alaska, I was impressed by the carvers down there. They inspired me," he said.

Most of his masks, made of cottonwood, spruce and yellow cedar, have a story behind them.

One natural wood carving with a bead hanging from its nose is titled "Some things change, some things don't." Miller said the idea behind the mask focuses on the bead. In the past, that bead was a precious item, much like a diamond is today. Miller said the mask draws on the idea that while some things, like family, will always be valuable, others, like beads, change in value based on outside influences.

In a way, that concept relates directly to the way masks were traditionally viewed by many Native cultures. Miller said the masks were often burned or destroyed after use because they effectively became useless once their ceremonial purpose was completed.

photo: entertainment

  Photo by Carey James, Homer News
Another mask  
"It probably would have been an insult (to use the same mask twice), to show the same thing that you did last year," he said. "So they would use it and then it was useless. They would give it to kids to play with or use it for firewood."

In other masks, Miller's own experiences are prevalent. "The trees have eyes," relates to growing up in a small town where nothing is secret. The large, black eyes of that mask seem to follow your gaze around the room.

Other masks draw from traditional themes, like the connection between humans and animals, particularly those which provided food to past cultures. Some of the images include meanings that might be hidden to the non-Native eye without explanation, such as the use of a red circle, which denotes the passage from one plane, or world, to another.

Miller said as his knowledge and capacity as a mask-carver grew, he was asked to begin teaching youth around Alaska that which he had learned.

photo: entertainment

  Photo by Carey James, Homer News
Miller's masks at the month-long art show.  
Through camps and workshops, Miller said, he hopes to encourage others to try their hand at mask-making. While not all of his students are inspired by the art form, for some it is a beginning and a connection to the past.

Miller said his greatest compliments come from other Natives, like an elder who passed a display of his masks at last year's Native convention.

"She was talking with her grandson and she said, 'These are the kind my grandpa used to do,'" her said. "To me that's better than anything. That's more meaningful to me than what an art critic says."

Miller's work will be on display at the Ptarmigan Arts Back Room Gallery through October.

photo: entertainment

  Photo by Carey James, Homer News
A mask being shown at Miller's show.  
Carey James can be reached at