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


On the Move

In 1972, a busy year, Hoover moved from Edmonds to Matlock, Washington. While he had spent the summer fishing, Barbara had moved in with her mother to help her deal with the loss of her husband and subsequent battle with cancer, a battle she lost that summer. When Hoover returned from fishing, Barbara, upset from the loss of her mother, requested that the couple leave Edmonds and start over in another house and another place. She chose Matlock. Hoover described the years in Matlock as "cold, rainy and leaky," but said they enjoyed the land around their house and the horses they kept there.

Hoover received his first major award in 1972, a first place in sculpture at the Annual Contemporary Indian Art Exhibit at Central Washington State College. He also received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which he spent teaching carving and sculpture at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at the invitation of James McGrath. His work was also included in a permanent exhibition at the Institute that identified six innovators, defined as Native artists who drew upon their cultural heritage while using new materials, techniques, and designs. Hoover defines an innovator as one who introduces novelty, or makes changes by introducing something new and credits the Institute with being the first institution to consider contemporary Native art an authentic art form.

During this stay at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Hoover worked with Allan Houser (1914 -1994). Houser's parents, Sam and Blossom Haozous, were Warm Springs Chiricahua Apaches held as prisoners of war at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. They instilled a strong sense of history and cultural heritage in their son who was born in Apache, Oklahoma. Houser moved to New Mexico in 1934 to study painting at the Santa Fe Indian School and became the school's most famous graduate. By 1939 he had exhibited his work in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. He was selected for two major mural commissions, in 1939 and 1940, for the Department of the Interior building in Washington, D.C. In 1962 Houser was asked to join the faculty of the newly created Institute of American Indian Arts. There he created the sculpture department and began focusing his own artwork on three-dimensional forms. Houser evolved a unique style of sculpture in which he assimilated experiences from his life with modern sculptural aesthetics. His influence became apparent on hundreds of students and other artists. In 1975 Houser retired from teaching to devote himself full-time to his work. In the following two decades he produced close to one thousand sculptures in stone, wood, and bronze and participated in more than fifty solo exhibitions in museums and galleries in the United States, Europe, and Asia. He worked as a full-time artist until his death in 1994.

Hoover refers to Houser as a "magician" and recalled carving with him and watching him create sculptures, as the two men stood seemingly idle, talking. Houser and Hoover had some similarities in their work: both men were interested in retaining a narrative element in their work, but while Hoover told ancient stories of Alaska and Northwest cultures, Houser focused more on the physical activities of the Apaches, rather than the mythology, depicting such activities as dancing, buffalo hunting, and praying. In the 1970s both artists were working on developing an abstracted, stylized approach to depicting human and animal figures.

Houser taught an anatomy course at the Institute using various birds and other animals as models and sketched along with the students on large pieces of newsprint. "He'd sketch this beautiful stuff in charcoal and then he'd tear it off and throw it in the garbage can," said Hoover.

I asked him one day, "Allan, how about selling some of those sketches?" He said, "Aw, those are no good." But they were beautiful. So he really -- we really influenced each other. We were about the same age, and he had been assimilated and led a life much like mine. We were good friends. I saw him the day before he died. He was still happy.

Hoover had done some small sculptures in soapstone prior to visiting the Institute, but he attempted his first large pieces in stone while working there with Houser. Hoover created a stylized bird, similar to the birds found in his cedar carvings, and a large figurative work in serpentine stone called Reindeer Mother, which is displayed in his home today. "Though I will probably stay with wood, the experience of working with Allan Houser and his students was so stimulating that I continued to work in stone all winter and will do an occasional piece," he said, at the time. He did not create any more works in stone, however, and looking back now, Hoover simply states, "I didn't like it. It was not my medium." In 1988 and 1990 Hoover exhibited his sculptures with his friend and mentor Houser in San Francisco and Santa Fe. In these exhibitions Hoover exhibited large bronzes, wind chimes, and mobiles, forms that eventually developed from his wood carvings.

Hoover says his experience at the Institute of the American Indian Arts helped him to branch out artistically. His work became more stylized and abstracted. He enjoyed the camaraderie he developed with the other artists who were there at the same time, including Allan Houser, Charles Loloma, and Fritz Scholder. "I think we influenced each other a lot," said Hoover. "Not so much in obvious ways when you look at our art, but more because we encouraged each other to grow and because we all accepted one another's art. We agreed about what art was."


Recognition and Success

Hoover's 1973 exhibition at the Heard Museum, as rescheduled, was shared with painter Franklin Fireshaker, a Ponco Nation painter from Ojai, California. The exhibition was a critical point for Hoover. It was a large exhibition, including more than thirty works. Hoover was working larger than he had previously, creating six- to eight-foot carvings of spirit birds, which he called "souls in flight" and which represented the flight of a shaman while in a trance. He created most of the work for the exhibition after his experience teaching and working at the Institute of the American Indian in Santa Fe. "My work was changing then," said Hoover. "I was all hyped up with new ideas."

While Hoover was still creating spirit boards similar to those he made before Santa Fe, the designs had grown more ambitious. Spirit Board, 1973, is a sixty-inch cedar plank on which Hoover carved and painted a visual timeline showing the progression of a boy's life from birth to death. At the bottom of the piece a child is born. As the boy grows old, a man with a red cane comes to claim him and takes him across the river into spirit world. This is some of Hoover's most complicated imagery and one of the only linear storylines he has attempted to portray. Raven People, 1972), is less complicated, but still more ornate than his early work. Two figures are stacked on the six-foot cedar plank. The figure at the top is foreboding, with a dark face, circled eyes, and bared teeth. The lower figure is more innocent and bland. Hoover was still using some inlay at this time, embedding small pieces of ivory for the figures' eyes.

The Heard Museum bought six works from Hoover's 1973 exhibition for their permanent collection. Hoover recalls that one critic wrote that the work in the exhibition was "too esoteric for most people." Sandra Day O'Connor, a Supreme Court Justice and once a Congresswoman from Arizona, bought two of Hoover's triptychs from the exhibition (the Heard Museum later named a wing of the museum after her). "We corresponded a couple of times; got some neat letters from her," said Hoover.

Also in 1973, one of Hoover's woodcarvings, entitled Salmon Woman, won the second place award at the Heard Museum's Sculpture I American Indian competition. Salmon Woman, 1972, a figure Hoover had begun while teaching at the Institute of American Indian Arts, was created from a slab of red cedar after Hoover's friend, Nick Spanovick, related to Hoover the story of Salmon Woman he had heard. Spanovick was a machinist working in a cannery in Ketchikan who also sharpened tools for Alaskan totem pole carver Jones "Skultas" Yeltatsie. Yeltatsie took Spanovick down to a river in Ketchikan to show him some ancient petroglyphs representing Salmon Woman. Spanovick made rubbings from the petroglyphs, which he later showed to Hoover as he re-told the legend he'd heard from Yeltatsie.

Salmon Woman is one of the more significant supernatural figures identified with the arctic and the lower regions of the Northwest Coast, including Washington, Oregon, and northern California. Salmon Woman was considered to be a guardian spirit to both shaman and community. All along the coast, people's stories tell of Salmon Woman's gift of food for the people, reflecting an animal spirit. Sacred narratives tell of the salmon people who lived in longhouses at the bottom of the sea like the people in the villages. The salmon people only put on their salmon robes when it was time for them to make the annual salmon run. When the salmon swam from the sea toward the rivers, the people along the rivers would sing songs and thank the salmon for sacrificing themselves as food for the people. Salmon bones were offered by people facing down river so that the salmon spirits could return to the sea and become fish once again. The salmon were a link between two worlds.

Natives of the Northwest Coast have depended upon salmon runs as a food source for centuries. The fish serves as a powerful symbol of regeneration, self-sacrifice, and perseverance. Shortages of salmon are traditionally attributed to human disrespect and refusal to live by the wisdom of the elders. Salmon are honored and celebrated by all coastal peoples, often in the form of Salmon Woman, a favorite image in Hoover's work, whose provenance he explains:

Salmon Woman, which I do a lot of, that's a myth. They [Alaska Natives] used to put salmon women at the head of every fish stream in the village so that the fish would always return. They were a form of petroglyphs, but they had been represented as salmon women who had big breasts and were very beautiful, so the salmon could not resist her -- they had to come back every year to spawn there.

In 1974 Hoover and his wife moved to Grapeview, Washington, overlooking Pickering Passage and Hartstene Island on the southern extremes of Puget Sound, where Hoover has now lived for the last twenty-five years in a home he calls "the place that looks down on birds." Hoover developed this property into an ideal setting for life and art, building studio just steps from the house, and then adding a deck and bathhouse overlooking the water.

Hoover traveled abroad in 1974 as well, visiting Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines, hired as part of an artist-in-residence program with the U.S. Air Force school system that educated the children of U.S. Armed Services men and women. Hoover spent two weeks in each country, living in the Air Force officer's barracks while in each location. Time in between the residencies was spent traveling around the countries and visiting small villages. The experience reinforced his desire to celebrate his culture through his art:

I spent some time as a visiting artist in the Orient. I marveled at the Japanese temples -- beautiful, elaborate structures made by priests. I found Filipino and Taiwanese woodworkers to be master craftsmen, capable of reproducing an image exactly as they saw it with great precision, and I learned their carving techniques just by watching. I found only one man making ancestor figures, much like those of the ancient Eskimos, and resembling those I was then carving. I felt that I was helping to revive an almost lost art.

Most of the villages Hoover visited in Taiwan had ancestor figures at their entrances. These were ancient carvings that had survived generations of villagers. They represented fertility and were in place to bring good luck to the village. Contemporary carvers were not permitted to carve replicas of the figures; they were sacred. Hoover, however, carved his own ancestor figure when he returned home to his Washington studio and it was a theme he would repeat later.

In 1974 Hoover's cedar triptych Otter Daughter took the first award in sculpture at the Philbrook Museum of Art's Annual American Indian Artists Exhibition in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The sea otter had become a favorite image of Hoover and many other artists in the Northwest. Sea otters are believed to be important arbiters of morality and human behavior, withdrawing their support from hunters who do not honor their sacrifice to die at the hunter's hand in order to feed his village. Sea otters are challenging prey, and hunting them was a prestigious activity. Otters are known to be highly intelligent, resourceful, and agile, able to use their forepaws like hands. Otters are also very playful, a characteristic that has identified otter images as symbols of laughter and lightheartedness. The sea otter was often depicted floating on its back, grasping a shell or a sea urchin. Whale and Otter Spirit, 1975, is a triptych mask form in which a human face incorporates the shape of a whale; two otters form the hinged panels on each side.

The Aleuts had at least eleven legends about the origin of the sea otter and many tales about hunting them. Otter figurines made in the Aleutians were sometimes used as adornments on Aleut kayaks, hunting hats, floats, and throwing boards. Such fine and intricate objects made by man were thought to attract sea mammals, especially otters, who were believed to be transformed humans.

The sea otter also has a negative association that related to the forced conscription of the Aleuts by the Russians, but this history also adds to the spiritual power of the animal. Hoover told the following history: The Aleuts were masters at hunting sea mammals, and the Russians were aware of their prowess. The Russians would transfer the Aleut hunters with their kayaks aboard ship from their villages out to the open seas where otters were found. The Russians never admitted that the Aleuts were deprived of their human rights when forced to hunt. The traders left the Aleuts to survive as best they could in skin boats. The result is that hunters would often be too long at sea, and the kayaks would collapse around them, and they would drown. Sometimes they were left so long at the hunting grounds, immobilized in their kayaks, that their legs would develop gangrene and would later have to be amputated. On other occasions, if the hunters refused to leave their villages to hunt the otters, the Russians would line up the males and see how many they could shoot with a single bullet. The greed of the Russian fur traders for otter pelts put the animal on the brink of extinction. It also brought on the near demise of the Aleut hunters and their families and villages. The Aleuts were conscripted from every island and village the Russians could locate.

Despite this sad history, Hoover reveres the otter for the important place it held in Aleut society before its role was tainted by the Russians.

In 1975 Hoover received first and second awards at the Heard Museum Guild's Annual Indian Arts and Crafts Exhibition. At this time, he was again exploring the mask form but now, instead of showing humans transforming into animals with one-piece cutouts, he was adding appendages to elaborated mask forms. Salmon Man, 1974, features a human face in the center of the large shape of an animal. Attached to the sides are two salmon: the one on the left facing upstream, the one on the right facing downstream. The salmon are attached to the central mask figure by two small sticks, expanding the mask form into more complicated sculpture.

In 1977 Hoover received a first award in wood sculpture, again at the Heard Museum Guild's Annual Indian Arts and Crafts Exhibition. In February 1978 Hoover and his son Tony, then twenty-nine-years old and a painter, presented a father-and-son exhibition at the Haines Gallery in Seattle. Tony, who now lives in Ballard, Washington, is a watercolor painter, creating landscapes and wildlife paintings along with works inspired by science fiction.

Hoover was still continuing to fish in Alaska each summer at this time, although he no longer was financially dependent upon it. Instead, he felt it was meaningful and good for his soul, describing fishing as the thing he knew best.


Going Public

In 1977 Hoover also received his first and second public art commissions, the beginning of what became an important outlet for his creativity and a source of financial support. The first commission was one of Hoover's most noted public art installations: Ancestor Figures, an indoor sculpture created for the Daybreak Star Center in Seattle. Eight feet tall by twelve feet wide, it depicts salmon, killer whale, wolf, eagle, and raven -- representing crests found in Southeast Alaskan Indian cultures. Another Hoover sculpture is permanently installed at the Daybreak Star Center as well, although it was not intended as a piece of public art. In a 1981 group exhibition at the Daybreak Star Center, comedian Richard Prior saw Hoover's work while he was taking a lunch break from shooting a film nearby. The piece Pryor saw at the exhibition was Winter Loon Dance, which depicted eight dancing loons through combinations of bird and human elements.

Pryor came in during the lunch hour and saw that piece, Winter Loon Dance. It's about nine feet high and about ten feet in diameter and is probably made up of a dozen pieces. He said, "I want that, how much is that?" "Four thousand dollars." He said, "Okay, I'll take it and I want to take it with me when I leave tonight." They couldn't do that. They couldn't pack it up that quickly. So he said, "Okay, you [Daybreak Star Center] keep it." And it's still there.

In 1978 Hoover created a large mobile (measuring nine feet tall by nine feet wide) for the King County Alcoholic Center in Seattle, based on the supernatural being Sedna, the Great Goddess of the Alaska Inuit, or Inupiat. This was Hoover's first exploration of the mobile, a form whose potential for animating a large public space allowed him to move beyond more two-dimensional wall hangings. He also chose the mobile form because it lent itself well to the theme he had chosen: Sedna, a water-spirit and the archetypal figure of Inuit mythology, and some of the creatures that make up Sedna's undersea world.

Most Native peoples construe the Great Goddess to be an Earth Goddess, but the Inuit, whose survival depends on the sea, have elevated Sedna to this role. She shares aspects of the Great Goddess as conceived by other groups, and has an ambivalent nature, being simultaneously the source of all life and ruler of the dead.

Sedna was born to two giants and immediately proved to have an insatiable appetite that grew so large that one night she started to devour her sleeping parents. The terrified parents snatched up the infant and carried her to their umiak (a large hunting boat) and paddled far out to the sea, where they threw her overboard. Sedna clung to the sides of the canoe until her parents cut off her fingers and she sank beneath the waves. There she became the ruler of the ocean, governing both the sea and all its creatures, who were born from her severed fingers.

When Inuit hunters were unable to find any prey, their shaman sent his spirit down to plead with Sedna. To reach her home, the shaman's spirit had to first pass through the land of the dead and a treacherous icy whirlpool. Next, the spirit had to pass an enormous cauldron full of boiling seals, evade the fierce guard-dog of Sedna, and then cross an abyss on a knife-thin edge, before arriving at Sedna's palace. There, the spirit danced for Sedna, hoping to induce her into helping his people. Sedna might instruct the shaman's spirit to build a new settlement, or she would agree to send them seals and other prey. Some arctic people, including the Bering Sea Inupiat, performed a ritual ceremony called the Bladder Festival to placate Sedna so that she would release the marine mammals she held captive. They would inflate bladders of the animals they hunted and float them out to sea.

The Inuit had no visual representation of Sedna. They believed that to create her image was sacrilegious and would offend Sedna for she might believe the people were trying to steal her soul. In modern days, Sedna has been popularly portrayed by Inuit artists and others as a half-human, half-sea creature, with the sea creature usually taking the form of a whale, seal, walrus, or fish, probably because legend says that Sedna was once a human who then became a sea dweller.

The King County project was not Hoover's first -- or last -- depiction of Sedna. Most of his depictions show a human form in the process of transforming into a sea mammal, such as a walrus or an otter. The human face of Sedna can be found within the body of the animal, such as between the tusks of the walrus, or the animal can be found within the human form of Sedna, such as between her legs. In his King County mobile, Hoover features Sedna along with all of her sea creatures, including whales, seals, and fish. He said he did not depict a specific story about Sedna, but was simply trying to portray her as a powerful goddess. A year after the mobile was installed, a group of the center's residents threw cups at the sculpture during their lunch hour. The effort knocked the sculpture down from the ceiling, breaking it irreparably. The sculpture was never replaced.

Hoover's personal life underwent some changes during this time. He separated from his wife Barbara in 1977 and soon met Mary Rockness in Cordova. Like Hoover, Mary had been involved in the Alaskan salmon fisheries for more than twenty years. They married in 1978 and decided to make Grapeview their permanent home.


A New Decade

In 1979 Hoover returned to Alaska for a solo exhibition at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. Hoover identifies this exhibition as one of his career highlights and still feels grateful to the Anchorage Museum for the support the institution has given him over the years. "I could kiss their feet," said Hoover. "At my solo exhibition everyone was very supportive and very sincere. It's very rewarding for an artist to have people who show an interest in and a respect for their work."

The artwork presented in this exhibition -- and later, in 1982, in Night of the First Americans, a one-night exhibition and reception hosted by the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., along with the work of four hundred other Native artists -- was very symmetrical and stylized. Hoover's diptych and triptych forms were cutouts and relied on repetitive shapes and images. The cutouts were also growing increasingly more complex, along with the ability of the sculptures to transform when the hinged panels were opened and closed. For example, an elegant loon on the exterior of a closed sculpture transforms into two loon spirit helpers and two men when the piece is unfolded, as illustrated here in Blind Man and the Loon, 1980.

The figures that were featured on the center panels of the triptychs were now most often women, made obvious with breasts that created an irregular shape for the outline of the sculptures. Puffin Spirit, 1980, is one example of the central female figure. Two puffins frame her, with their chests conforming to the shape of her neck, shoulders and head. The puffins' beaks rise above her head, pointing upward. Two other puffins, one on each side, complete the triptych form, meeting the other puffins back-to-back.

For Hoover, the feminine form is used to represent elemental sources of life. Hoover's literature on shamans revealed the awe accorded to women for their ability to give birth to a child. The shamans believed this ability gave women one of nature's secrets that they themselves could never possess. Ancient shamans also believed that the act of creation was a feminine act and thus tried to carry out their own activities in an androgynous manner to successfully make the journey into the supernatural world.

Hoover finds that women are not just represented in his work, they are particularly drawn to it:

A lot of women buy my work. I don't know what it is. Maybe because I use the female form, or, the reason I use that is because in Siberia some shamans were women, and the women were the most important shamans, the most powerful. They had an easier...access to the spirit world and created work that was more important. Even the men dressed as women to try to get that power. I use the woman form a lot.

By the early 1980s Hoover was again playing with variations on his sculptural forms. His mask shapes with appendages had become more fluid, as illustrated in Loon Man Soul Catcher, 1980. Now the central mask figure was almost unrecognizable as a mask, although the human face in the center is still present. The face is framed by another circle that is surrounded again by a two-headed loon form. Human figures are the appendages, curving along the sides of the sculpture, molded to imitate the circular shapes.

A soul catcher, in most Northwest Coast cultures, was a tubular implement used by a shaman to capture the soul of a sick person when it left the body at dusk. The soul catcher would cleanse the captured soul and return it in a healthy state to the patient. Although Hoover uses the term soul catcher in many titles for his artwork, as in Loon Man Soul Catcher, the form he sculpts is not consistent with the idea of the soul catcher as an implement or tool. Hoover is more interested in depicting soul catchers as animals, or the spirits of animals, who assist the shaman in retrieving souls. Loons are the animals Hoover most often chooses for the task, as they served as guardian spirits to the Aleut shamans.

An Aleut story tells of a man receiving restorative powers from a loon by riding on its back as it swims beneath the sea. As a marine bird, the loon unites the worlds of sky and water; this ability to bridge two worlds makes it an ideal subject for transformation. The loon was believed to be able to penetrate deep into the undersea world by diving to significant depths while hunting for fish. The loon also was an important bird because it warned people of coming storms.

When Hoover was growing up in Cordova, loons would fly out in the morning from Eyak Lake across to the saltwater bay on the other side of the town. In the evening they would return to the lake. The Eyaks, the tribe that lived for two thousand years on the lake, believed that the loon was part human because it had what the Eyaks called "round rumps' with no tail feathers. So the loons were not hunted or eaten by the Eyaks. Hoover recalls fishing one day in the Copper River flats, drifting along, when he heard a noise. It was a loon flying around the boat, squawking. When Hoover pulled up his net, there were two loons in it that had drowned, a male and a female. One had been the first to die; the other, unable to save its mate, had joined it in death. Hoover believes the loon was calling to him for help. Hoover felt remorse for the lost birds and has since identified loons as his spirit helpers. In the 1980s loons were a dominant subject matter for Hoover. Loon Woman, 1980, a panel carving depicting a woman with a loon rising from each side of her body (the loons themselves also have feminine bodies), Red-Throated Loon Spirit Mask, 1984, a triptych with a simple face surrounded by two pairs of symmetrical loons, and Underwater Loon Woman, 1985, a face with a loon rising high from each side of the temples, becoming asymmetrical at the top of the carving, one with its beak open; the other with its beak closed.

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