John Hoover's Volcano Woman, in the lobby of Anchorage's Egan Center is one of our state's chief public art icons. When I first saw it late in the last century, it brought tears to my eyes. For joy. What richness of history and legend in those tied images, incanting inwardly.
Here's how Dr. Julie Decker described the sculpture group's beginning and odyssey:
In 1984 Hoover received a commission for what would become his favorite public art installation. Volcano Woman consists of thirteen figures and the central figure of Volcano Woman is surrounded by eight female figures (guardian spirits) forming an outer circle, and four cormorants making up an inner circle. Cormorants are diving sea birds, whose ability to both fly in the air and move underwater accounts for their appearance in shamanic contexts in Northwest and Alaskan cultures, as shamans often seek the guidance of creatures that can move from one environment to another. Hoover is pleased with the way this sculpture fills a seating area in the building and the complexity of the interaction of the forms.
Volcano Woman, in Northwest Coast culture, is the protector of the forest. People must respect Volcano Woman, as she protects all wild creatures as her children. Volcano Woman is volatile, vengeful, and violent at times. According to Lydia T. Black, a scholar of Aleut art and culture, only one Aleut story of Volcano Woman has been documented in writing, and no images of Volcano Woman exist from ancient times. Rather, Volcano Woman was described through oral traditions, from generation to generation. Hoover's depiction of Volcano Woman, however, combines the Aleut text (referred to by Black) and versions of the story from oral traditions with his own imagination. The story of Volcano Woman seeks to explain how the Aleutian Islands of Alaska were populated. Hoover recounted the story in this way:Volcanoes were being formed in the Aleutians and the volcanoes formed islands. A flock of cormorants went by one volcano and a beautiful woman emerged, the Volcano Woman. So they all stopped and changed into human form and mated with her and then changed back into cormorants. But they flew their babies all over the islands, and, in this way, the islands became populated.Hoover believes that his is the first visual interpretation of the Volcano Woman story by an artist. Each of the three separate, but interrelated, circular elements is a different color, which Hoover says reflect natural earth tones: grays, greens, and reds. The simple, plain carving on the backsides of the figures is consistent with the Northwest Coast tradition, which usually left the backs of totem poles, mortuary poles, and other ceremonial sculptures unadorned.
To carve the sculpture, Hoover selected a single three-hundred-year-old cedar log and had it planed into boards of varying thicknesses, as required for each element of the composition. Saws were used to take the boards down to their rough shapes, and then they were sculpted by hand with a series of woodcarving gouges. Hoover worked for six months in his Grapeview studio carving the legend into life, before it was installed at the William A. Egan Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage. Of his public commissions Hoover said with a wink, "No one has gotten mad at my public art yet. Even the naked ones like Volcano Woman. Maybe I'm not provocative enough."
Since encountering Volcano Woman, I've been tied to the legend in music. I'm about to go back there.
In 1992 I wrote Volcano Woman as the final movement to my electronic music ballet for robots, Robot Gagaku. In that movement, Volcano Woman is reawakened by robotic machines from another planet, who have been called down to a dead earth at some time tens of thousands of years in the future, to help reintroduce organic life to an earth killed off by human greed and miscalculation.
Volcano Woman II, will attempt to directly address John Hoover's rendition of the Aleut myth. This new version is scored for trumpet, French horn, trombone and piano. It will premiere as the final movement of a set of four pieces, titled Aleutian Sketches. Linn Weeda, Cheryl Pierce, Christopher Sweeney and Dean Epperson will introduce the work in Unalaska on May 13th.
In the spring of 1974, when my fishing partner KC Condon and I prepared our gillnetter-seiner, Swanee, for our first Copper River salmon opener, I asked Ralph Peterson, the guy who sold us the boat, about fishing the area between Egg Island Channel and Kokenhenik Bar. Ralph said, "Watch Johnnie Hoover. Don't "seagull" (follow too closely) him. He knows what he's doing.
That summer, fishing the Copper River Flats, the Bering River Flats and Esther Island, KC and I watched John Hoover a lot. We learned as much from him about the art of gillnetting as we did from anyone. As I look up from my studio computer and MIDI keybard, writing Volcano Woman II, at the images on the studio wall of Hoover's marvelous work, I'm still learning from this sage elder.
image of John Hoover's Volcano Woman by Philip Munger