Hailed as one of the finest Alaska artists of his generation, Ron Senungetuk, 86, died last week on Jan. 21 at his Homer home with family present.
His wife, Turid Senungetuk, said he died of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, a rare neurological disorder.
Artists, professors and leaders of art organizations praised Senungetuk not only for his work in wood and metal, but for his advocacy of treating indigenous art as fine art.
“Ron shaped the way we support and celebrate Alaska’s culture in a complex, nuanced way that has been game changing,” wrote Bunnell Street Arts Center Artistic Director Asia Freeman in an email.
Da-ka-xeen Mehner, associate professor of Native art and the current director of the Native Art Center that Senungetuk founded at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, called him “the grandfather of contemporary Native art in Alaska.”
In a video filmmaker Michael Walsh made about Senungetuk on the occasion of his 2014 Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts & Humanities, Fairbanks artist Kesler Woodward said of Senungetuk, “It is almost impossible to overstate his importance. He is almost certainly the most widely exhibited Alaskan artist — really, the dean of all Alaska artists.”
Born in 1933, in Wales, Alaska, Senungetuk grew up in a traditional Inupiat culture. In testimony before the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1969, he said that at age 15 when he went to boarding school at Mt. Edgecumbe in Sitka, he spoke little English.
“I really went through cultural torment,” Senungetuk said then. “… It was a social shock but it probably taught me to be quite observant.”
In a 2008 interview with the Homer News, Senungetuk said in Wales he had learned to carve ivory as part of his tradition. “At Edgecumbe I kind of continued this kind of thing, a little bit of ivory and wood as a new material,” he said.
There he caught the attention of George Fedoroff, an artist and teacher of wood and ivory carving. Fedoroff encouraged Senungetuk to attend the School for American Crafts at the Rochester Institute of Technology, New York. After his studies were interrupted when he was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army, Senungetuk returned to RIT, graduating in 1960 with a bachelor of fine arts. He had started in wood working but after his return to RIT turned to metalsmithing.
“He really flowered in metalsmithing, silversmithing,” said Homer artist Rika Mouw, a jeweler and longtime friend of Senungetuk. “He did these incredible hollow ware sets and jewelry.”
After RIT, Senungetuk got a Fullbright Scholarship to study at the Statens Handverks of Kunstindustri Skole in Oslo, Norway. At the school he met his wife, Turid Grotthing, also an artist and jewelry maker. She followed him back to Alaska and they married in 1962.
That personal marriage of a couple from Scandinavian and Inupiat cultures also is reflected in Senungetuk’s aesthetic. His art uses traditional Inupiat imagery like caribou, whales, fish and birds, but with the elegance and simplicity of the design of Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland.
“He took traditional themes and topics and just completely did them his own way — I mean, completely,” Mouw said.
Though his work used Native ideas, Senungetuk advocated for himself and other indigenous artists an identity as artists first.
“I’d rather be an artist who happened to be Inupiat,” he told the Homer News in 2008.
Mouw said Senungetuk was the impetus for “Decolonizing Alaska,” a Bunnell show that challenged the concept of colonization.
“It irked him that he was always known as a Native artist,” Mouw said. “He wanted to be an artist first, Native second.”
In 1961, Senungetuk started his career as an art professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In 1965 he founded and directed the UAF Native Arts Center. Through the center, he guided generations of Native artists. Turid Senungetuk said many of his former students have told her how much Ron Senungetuk affected them.
“He influenced a lot of people,” she said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “… A lot of his people have called me, (saying) ‘how he saved me.’ Some of those students had a hard time adjusting to campus life. He herded them along. Some of them are famous artists.”
Through his direction of the Native Arts Center and as an artist and teacher, Senungetuk fiercely advocated the idea of art by Alaska Natives as being more than tourist art.
“The view that indigenous people need to be on that same playing field,” Mehner said. “It was his (Senungetuk’s) mission to bring indigenous arts into, really, bring it into the place we are now. … His vision of art occupying that same space as other arts was really vital for what’s happening now.”
In 2010, Senungetuk curated “Inspirations: An Alaska Native Art Exhibition” at the Pratt Museum that showed the best of artists who happened to be Native.
“I wanted to Native art to become better,” Senungetuk told the Homer News in an August 2010, article about the exhibit. “…We are equals but never recognized. I want to say to anybody, ‘We’re as good as you.’”
Senungetuk’s work “honored living cultures and looked extremely contemporary,” Freeman wrote. “… He challenged and expanded ideas of ‘traditional Native art’ and in the process he kept culture alive and poured new life into it, and inspired many others to do that too.”
Woodward said Senungetuk was “a mentor to generations of Alaska Native artists and non-Native artists, and an example for all of us of how you can be a great teacher and a great mentor, a great spokesperson for the arts, but also be a great artist, who can be recognized not just on the local, regional, and statewide level, but on the national and international level as he has been.”
Senungetuk also helped found the Alaska State Council on the Arts. He designed its simple logo of two caribou, one standing and one sitting down.
“Ron’s influence as a highly esteemed artist and respected cultural leader, friend and founding member of the Alaska State Council on the Arts is a legacy that we feel every day in our work throughout the state,” Andrea Noble, executive director of the Alaska State Council on the Arts, Anchorage, wrote in an email. “The continuation of ASCA through tough times is a testament to Ron’s vision, knowledge and his lifetime commitment to cultural infrastructure based on strength of relationships, networks and collaboration. Leaders like Ron and his family who have labored with love to pave the way for others are the true champions of Alaska’s art and culture.”
Exhibited widely, Senungetuk’s work is part of the permanent collection at the Pratt Museum, the Anchorage Museum of Art, the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, and numerous 1%-for-art installations — creative works in state facilities where 1% of the construction cost goes to art. He received the Governor’s Award for the Arts in 1979 and the Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts and Humanities in 2014. The Rasumuson Foundation gave him a Distinguished Artist grant in 2008.
When he heard the news about Senungetuk dying last week, Mehner said he told his students at the Alaska Native Art Center, “Everybody in this class is part of his legacy by taking the class. Without his vision to create the center, none of us would be here. You are all part of his legacy now.”
Senungetuk is survived by wife, Turid; his daughter, Heidi, of Anchorage; his son, Chris, of San Diego, California; and his grandsons, Harley of Eagle River and Xander of San Diego. Turid Senungetuk said there will be a memorial gathering to be held at a later date.