Project: Alaska Yuut Arts and Crafts E-Commerce Project
Grantee: Association of Village Council Presidents (ACVP)
Written by: Eva Malvich, Director/Curator Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center

Art of Yup'ik Doll Sytle

Participants showing off their dolls after completing a Yup’ik doll making workshop. Photo credit: Margaret Herron

For many generations, little Yup’ik girls were provided with ‘cloth’ dolls – entire families consisting of dad, mom, big brother, big sister and baby, a traditional teaching method targeted at young girls in order for the females to learn how to raise a family. Most recently, with the advent of western lifestyles and the cash economy, those same little girls grew up making bigger, more elaborate dolls to sell for cash.

When you think of it, Yup’ik dolls (and any home-made doll for that matter) are a great way to use up precious scraps of fur and cloth, hide and trim. Most often, the same doll maker, is also adept at making fur parkas, mukluks or qaspeks, and has a nice tidy supply of scraps at hand.

That is the case for the recent doll making class with Chevak-based Neva Mathias. Neva lives in the region and sells her work in arts and crafts events. Her dolls are well known for their beautifully made clothing and expressive faces. Thanks to the CIRI Foundation Journey to What Matters grant, the Association of Village Council Presidents provided a series of Artist Workshops highlighting regional artists, including the Doll Making Class with Ms. Mathias.

The class was booked as soon as the registration period opened up. Grandmas brought grandchildren along, a welcome sight for the group. A pregnant daughter-in-law sat next to her mother-in-law, both familiar faces in our previous classes. The group was made up of friends and neighbors, established artists and new students, locals and visitors.

The class was set up intently to feel like a visit to a friend’s house – with the radio softly playing in the background, hot coffee and tasty snacks on the side. The class was set up with everyone sitting around a large circle, facing each other, the sound of people quietly conversing with each other and an occasional shared laugh.

Class started. The instructor thanked everyone for attending. She quietly spoke about her background and the upcoming three-day class. She then asked the students to get familiar with the class kit set aside for each student; everything was provided for starting a hand-made doll. In addition to needles, thimbles, waxed dental floss (for sewing animal hide), etc., we were surprised to learn that the doll form was to be made out of old mismatched children’s socks for stuffing, and yellow electric wire (the kind used in homes) for shaping the arms and legs, as well as bits of cloth and strips of fur for the garment.

As the class progressed over the 3 day session, the doll forms were completed. Faces emerged, showing expressive faces. More exciting were the outfits made by each person. Some opted to make qaspeks and mukluks, beautifully designed dolls with clothing made to be removed just like the real thing.

As students prepared to leave with his/her doll and sewing kit, the instructor got busy making cardboard patterns for her students. With only three days with the instructor, we knew that some people would need more time to complete his/her piece. The students were instructed on the next steps, encouraging the student to continue working on the project at home. That was the intent behind this class: to teach future artists and to keep the art of doll making alive for future generations.

Quyana (thank you) to The CIRI Foundation for funding the Association of Village Council Presidents Artist Workshop series. In addition to this class, we also provided a seal gut-intestine class with Mary Tunuchuk of Chefornak. We are scheduled to hold a grass-basket class in the fall, followed by a Yup’ik mask making class in November.