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Telling Alaska’s Story: A Native artist uses local clay to revive an old tradition

Alaska Native artist Ed Mighell’s work is a nod to a tradition that goes back thousands of years, one he he feels lucky to revive.
Published: Apr. 25, 2022 at 6:12 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska Native artist Ed Mighell’s work is a nod to a tradition that goes back thousands of years, one he he feels lucky to revive.

Mighell said the art tiles he creates are part of a history of ceramics in Northwest Alaska that had all but died out.

“It was a lost tradition,” said Mighell. “The last lady to make hand-built pit fired pots died in 1880.”

Mighell has been making art tiles since 2004, gathering the clay he uses from the shores of Cook Inlet. But Mighell didn’t start out as an artist, instead he took after his father, an engineer from Massachusetts.

“Our father was an engineer, and he liked playing math games with us. So four of us out of six became engineers.”

Eventually, Mighell said he felt a creative pull he couldn’t deny. He went back to school and got a degree in fine art, which led to a new career. Many of Mighell’s designs honor his Native heritage, his mother is Inupiaq from Point Hope.

Tiles feature owls and whales and traditional hunters. Other tiles are more fanciful, or tiles that contain plant and flower impressions, come straight from nature itself. Mighell said he enjoys sharing the stories of his designs with people, but he also includes information on the back of each tile, including both his English and Native names.

“Nakulturuq was a name that I was given by my mother as a nickname. We all had nicknames. It kind of means big head” he said. “…At my grandmother’s service a few years back I met a lot of older, elder ladies from Kotzebue and Point Hope in the Northwest, and they said it’s a good name, it means I have room for lots of thoughts.”

Mighell’s favorite stamp includes information that the tile was made with Cook Inlet glacier clay in Alaska.

“People really like this extra information,” he said. “Especially that part where I stamp Cook Inlet Clay, Alaska. Tourists feel like they’re taking a little bit of Alaska back home with them.”

Mighell sells his tiles throughout the summer at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. He also has a website where people can order his work online.

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