Monday, September 5, 2011

Alaska Sculptor John Hoover Passes

John Hoover, artist, shaman, shapeshifter - from BuckarooBob's flickr photostream
Alaska sculptor John Hoover passed away Saturday.  He was 91.  Two of his most recent of many awards were an honorary doctorate from the University of Alaska Anchorage on May 8, 2011, and the 2010 Rasmuson Alaska Distinguished Artist award.

I wrote about John last winter, after I finished Volcano Woman II, inspired by John's Volcano Woman sculpture group.  Here's what I wrote then:

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.

Thanks, John!

Volcano Woman II:  This is my second setting of this Aleut creation myth. The first was in my 1992-93 work, Robot Gagaku, Op. 28. This second version is directly inspired by Alaska Native artist John Hoover’s monumental sculpture, Volcano Woman. The rondo form of this movement depicts the circular structure of the sculpture, with peopled island figures at the outside, the cormorants in the middle and the Volcano Woman herself at the center, dispensing both her power and fertility.

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The UAA Brass Trio, along with Dean Epperson on piano, will perform Volcano Woman II on Sunday, October 8, at 4:00 p.m.  It will be part of a recital by UAA professor of low brass, Dr. Christopher Sweeney.  In the Fine Arts Building Recital Hall.

Volcano Woman - by John Hoover


Anonymous said...

See one of Hoover's best pieces at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

From the Sacramento Bee:
His wife, Mary, said Monday that he died Saturday in Washington state, where they lived on Puget Sound near Grapeview.
Hoover's work has been shown around the world and was prized by collectors, corporations and museums, The Anchorage Daily News ( reported.

Hoover was born to a Dutch father and an Aleut-Russian mother in Cordova, Alaska. He was a ski instructor in Idaho and a commercial fisherman in Alaska, staying on the latter job until 1991, his wife said.
He told the Daily News in a 1998 interview that he turned to art after building a 58-foot fishing vessel in the late 1950s "without much in the way of power tools." He said he realized what he had done was much like sculpture, and his pieces after that often used a kind of bas relief on carved red cedar.

In 2002, the Anchorage Museum held a major retrospective of his work. In May, the University of Alaska Anchorage awarded him an honorary doctorate.

Hoover had exhibitions around the world, but was particularly appreciated in his home state where the Egan Civic and Convention Center, the Alaska Native Medical Center and the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage showed his large sculptural work.

Anonymous said...

This artist's last name is HOOBER, not Hoover. He was not a vacuum cleaner. His work is a testiment to his creativity and interpretation of Aleut and Alaska Native of significant importance to the Native Population of Alaska. Please have the decency to spell his name correctly.