Editor's note: Anchorage Museum of History and Art generously referred Resource Library Magazine to the author and copyright holder of the following catalogue essay. Anchorage Museum of History and Art will present John Hoover: Art and Life, a retrospective exhibition, May 12 through September 29, 2002. This biographical essay is reprinted with the permission of the author, Julie Decker, who may be reached at (907) 272-1489. If you have questions regarding the exhibition or the lavishly illustrated catalogue, please contact the Anchorage Museum of History and Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


John Hoover: Art and Life

by Julie Decker



When I first met John Hoover in 1994, at an opening reception for an exhibition of his carvings, I was as charmed by John as I was by his work. Wise and mischievous, John lacks pretense, greeting friends with a bear hug rather than a handshake. It is impossible not to want to hear this man's stories. He is both warm and keenly intelligent. His life stories are not secrets but are intertwined with his artwork, and they are a gift to those who come to know him. It is my hope that this publication will bring John's stories and art to life for many more people and that it will preserve them for many more years.

I was introduced to Hoover's work while growing up in Alaska, visiting local museums and galleries. When I became the owner of a retail art gallery in Anchorage in 1994 and, with my father, plunged into the world of presenting and selling contemporary art to the public, Hoover's work was a standard we aspired to. Many Alaskans experienced his artwork through the Municipality of Anchorage's public art program for which Hoover created several works. Hoover had created and installed one of the most visible and significant public artworks in Anchorage, a collection of several life-sized sculptures depicting the Aleut legend of Volcano Woman. Encircling a seating area within Anchorage's William A. Egan Civic and Convention Center, the red cedar sculptures display Hoover's adept carving skills and his innovative approach to interpreting traditional Native American myths and legends. I immediately admired Hoover's work. It held a sophistication and grace that stretched beyond the boundaries of a specific culture or time.

The work on this publication began in 1999 as I was completing another book, Icebreakers: Alaska's Most Innovative Artists, in which John was a featured artist. One day, while working with John to acquire materials for Icebreakers, he jokingly suggested that the book should be just about him. I agreed that he was book-worthy. A week later, I called him again, this time saying that maybe a book about him was just what we should do. I bought a digital video camera and a tape recorder and went to visit John at his home and studio in Washington in late January 2000. Only three months before, John had undergone triple-bypass heart surgery. I quizzed him about his life and his artwork, while he patiently told his stories.

John lives with his wife Mary and daughter Anna in a beautiful home on a quiet cove of Puget Sound in the small rural town of Grapeview. I felt privileged to visit them there and to be welcomed into their own private Eden. From the house, a series of decks and stairs, hand-built by Hoover, is layered among giant trees of cedar, fir, and hemlock, leading to a sauna, guesthouse, and trail, which leads to a landing where Mary docks her kayak. John's studio is a mere ten feet from the home's front door.

The man who emerged in the interviews for this publication has redefined the role of the artist. John demonstrated an ability to assess himself and his life in a perspective that is gained, not just with age, but also with having lived a life full of physical, mental, and aesthetic pleasures and challenges. Though he was tired and strained from his surgical recovery, John still mesmerized me with his stories, wit, and thoughtful insight. The tales he spins are not just those told by the ancient Eskimos and Indians who inspired him, these stories are his own, revealing his zest for the out-of-ordinary experience and his quest for excellence. His stories are every bit as inspiring as the legends he re-creates.

John delivered boxes of articles and publications that had been written about him over the years, along with a stack of photographs, some dating back to 1900, which I sorted. I worked to compile the information into a complete biography and bibliography relating to John's life and art, and thank those photographers who provided documentation of Hoover's artwork, as well as images of John himself throughout the years.

I am honored to have been chosen to write this publication and grateful for the new perspective on life that John's range of experiences and joy of life have revealed. Though he has now received much acclaim and his work is collected by museums throughout the world, he remains motivated primarily by his own need to create. With quiet dedication, he has lived the life of an artist for more than sixty years.

In the summer of 2000, I contacted Dave Nicholls, Exhibitions Curator at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art and proposed that the Museum serve as the host venue for a large retrospective exhibition of Hoover's work. Nicholls supported the idea and immediately set about to make it happen. It was important that the exhibition begin in Alaska, which was Hoover's home in his formative years, before it traveled throughout the United States to such cities as Seattle, Phoenix, and New York. The retrospective exhibition, like this publication, looks at John's entire art and life, from his upbringing in Cordova to his current life in Grapeview, from his early works in oil painting to his latest works in bronze. It is a tribute to Hoover and all that he has experienced and accomplished.

Although he left Alaska almost fifty years ago, Hoover's work will be forever tied to this state. John helped define both tradition and innovation and he redefined Alaska Native art. He is a craftsman, a skilled carver, and woodworker -- a master. Because he combines these skills with a limitless imagination, he is a creator.

John Hoover was born and raised in Cordova in an era when it was an international city and one of the richest ports in the territory of Alaska. Born to a Dutch father and Aleut-Russian mother, Hoover's life has been an exploration of many paths. He has worked as a fisherman, a taxi driver, a drummer, and a sailor. But, throughout, he has been an artist. Hoover's life is a story well worth telling. But it cannot be told without the stories of people who lived long before him. The ancient Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts, and the spirits that guided them, still guide Hoover today. He is their messenger and their voice.

While some critics have assumed that because of his Aleut heritage he draws on that culture's stories and traditions, Hoover has not restricted his explorations of Native traditions to a single group. Because so many Aleut stories and traditions were lost after European contact and the subsequent, almost total, decimation of the Aleut culture and its people, Hoover's Aleut mother Annie Serakovikoff, like many of her generation, did not share many stories of her people with her children. Because Annie had had such an unhappy childhood, she chose to separate her children from most Aleut customs and did not raise her children as Aleuts. She handed down some traditions, however, such as tanning hides and trimming clothing with goose and swan down.

Hoover's later quest for personal and artistic inspiration became much broader and less tied to his own specific Native heritage. He now draws upon the stories, myths, and legends of many Native American cultures, from throughout Alaska to the Northwest Coast and beyond. His interest in the Coast Salish people, for instance, is a predominant influence on his artwork and his choice of materials. The stories Hoover draws upon in creating his artwork have been passed down from generation to generation, over many centuries, and play a major role in the continuation of the culture.

Pan-Indian art is a term used to describe the art created by Native Americans that addresses Native themes, but does not draw upon the traditions of any one particular tribe. This has often been taken as an indication of the loss of tribal identity. Over the years, tribes had borrowed ideas from neighboring tribes and from Europeans and other outsiders with whom they came into contact. Some artists captured by other tribes and forced to work as slaves brought their own influences and traditions with them. In many areas, women were married outside of their tribe, which also led to a mixing of traditions. Even before European contact, art objects were often traded between tribes across the continent. It is the destruction of the Native way of life, however, that truly led to a loss of tribal identity. While Hoover draws on the stories, myths, and legends of many Native cultures, for him it does not represent loss so much as celebration -- celebration of the stories each culture has to offer and the respect each holds for its place and traditions. The artist surmises, "Now I do what I believe is art to me alone -- my conceptions, my ideas, my beliefs. Of course, I do wink at the Creator once in a while."

If a story is not transmitted from one generation to the next, or from one performance to the next, it will be irretrievably lost. The telling of stories is the way to maintain and continue the creative process of the entire history and tradition of the culture. It is critical to survival. To some Native Americans, stories are revealed or entrusted to humans by spiritual beings. If stories can no longer be told accurately, they may become dangerous to humans. Therefore, it is the responsibility of humans to retire entrusted knowledge of stories under some circumstances. Individuals who know stories and who know how to perform rites are often considered wealthy, more so than someone who has compiled material goods.

Stories, however, are adaptable. Some stories have undergone extensive change from generation to generation, even from telling to telling. Many stories can be adapted and applied to many situations. They are then tools used to create and maintain community, identity, and family. Hoover has taken his responsibility for sharing ancient stories to heart. He has become a master storyteller and his visual portrayals of ancient stories preserve them for many generations to come. He has adapted stories to make them his own, and to make them relevant to his own time and place. He will smile when asked to tell a story represented in his artwork. The stories represent a joy of discovery, and a connection to his past.

For early indigenous peoples without a written language, art served, together with oral traditions, as a means of transmitting stories, history, and wisdom from generation to generation. Art provided people with a tie to the land, and by depicting the history of the peoples, it served as a constant reminder of the birthplaces of lineages and nations. Daily, mythological, and ceremonial life was all intertwined with and expressed through art. Hoover feels he helps to carry on this tradition.

Tlingit artist James Schoppert, a contemporary of Hoover's, expressed his view of Native arts in contemporary times:

The exquisite work of our ancestors teaches us to create work suited for the day in which we live. By taking the old, breathing new life into it, and developing a new creation, the spirit of our people lives.
We [Native artists] carry with us fragments of our culture and are now bringing those elements into the much broader scope of world civilization. We cannot return to the old ways, but we must retain the old ways and reflect them in our attitudes and in our art. This will be our contribution.

The fragments of culture Hoover brings to his artwork are tales of shaman, spirit helpers, and the many creatures that were revered by the ancient cultures of Alaska and the Northwest. His artworks are about the transformation of man into animal and animal into man, as spirits move from one world into another. They are about the sea, celebrating the birds, otters, walruses and other creatures found along the northern coast. Hoover's own close relationship to nature is evidenced in his work -- the creatures are powerful, beautiful, wise, and every bit as important as man. Hoover is nostalgic for a way of life he never knew and a people he has only learned about through reading books and discovering ancient artifacts in museums. He has, nevertheless, developed a tremendous respect for the ancient way of life:

Indians went to the college of life. They depended entirely upon their skills to sustain themselves; there were no Safeway stores to feed them. Their art was born of their feelings of self-preservation, working as a tribe -- real values shared and handed down to future generations, through artwork, dances, storytelling and beliefs. Nature, of course, had a very important part in shaping their art. Their art was shaped by their real experiences with Mother Nature. I hope some of the work I have done portrays this ageless, spiritual wonderment, and brings solace and comfort to those who view them all with the same reverence I feel.

Hoover's work has evolved from paintings to simple carvings to complex cutouts featuring symmetrical and asymmetrical forms that fold and unfold into diptychs and triptychs, transforming as the ancient spirit helpers transformed in the stories Hoover works to retell. It is important to Hoover to share his work with a diverse public -- only in that way will he be able to preserve the ancient stories. He has exhibited, and others have collected, his artwork in Alaska and around the world.

Hoover is grateful to the museums and galleries who took the initiative to exhibit contemporary Native work. He holds a special fondness for the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, the Institute of American Indian Arts, as well as several art galleries in the Pacific Northwest, including the Stonington Gallery in Seattle and Anchorage; the Decker/Morris Gallery in Anchorage; Site 250 Fine Art Gallery and the Well Street Art Company in Fairbanks; the Haines Gallery in Everett and Seattle; the Daybreak Star Center in Seattle and their Sacred Circle galleries; and the Quintana Gallery in Portland, Oregon. The Glen Green Galleries in Santa Fe and Scottsdale, Arizona have also been instrumental in making Hoover's work available to the public and to prominent collectors.

Hoover has dedicated his life to creating artwork and learning about the land and its people. In getting to know Hoover and his work, one can't help but develop respect for the people and traditions Hoover holds so dear. The deep spirituality Hoover has gained from his knowledge transcends place and linear thought and is expressed in his artwork. I hope this book can be a vehicle for a better understanding of one man and his work and, in the process, allow others to share in the Native American people, places, and ideas, and understand the awe and deep respect in which Hoover holds them. I hope that ultimately the artwork will speak for itself -- just as the artist intended.

PART 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6

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