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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America



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Native Artist Puts Face on Salmon


by Susan Morgan Anchorage Daily News


credits: "Gods of the Copper River" is a 12-by-36-by-2-inch copper and glass sculpture created by Rebecca Lyon in 2001. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Lyon)


"Gods of the Copper River" is a 12-by-36-by-2-inch copper and glass sculpture created by Rebecca Lyon in 2001. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Lyon)Salmon have been very good to Rebecca Lyon. The Anchorage artist remembers teething on the dried fish strips as a child -- her grandmother always told her salmon was brain food -- and today it's still the meal she turns to for comfort.

Plus there's the little matter of a salmonlike art fish she created out of canned cat food lids that won her a trip to Provence, France, a few years back.

"You look at it and go, 'Gee whiz, that did that?' " Lyon says of the cat lid piece.

It still hangs victoriously in her kitchen, alongside "Dog Fish" with a head on each end, painted by another artist on a piscine-looking piece of driftwood.

But as an Alaska Native -- Lyon is Athabaskan on her mother's side and Alutiiq on her father's -- the fish mean much more.

"I feel strongly they are more than a commodity or even a food source," she says. "Like many things on our planet, there's more to them than we attribute in our popular culture."

How much more is evident in "Gods of the Copper River," hanging on a wall in Lyon's living room.

Here, on a hammered copper background, atop a curved sheet of bubbled "alligator" glass -- "If you touch the edges of the bubble, it'll slice you open like an alligator" -- three unusually decorated fish cavort. Besides the designs hammered by Lyon into the copper fish, each also has a distinct humanlike "face" on its side, complete with eyebrows, noses, lips and round eyeballs made of white bone.

As is her practice, when hammering the copper, Lyon repeated each blow a certain number of times. The number changes from piece to piece, and in theory it's to regulate the consistency of the design by regulating the strokes. But Lyon does it for other reasons, too.

"I'm this goofy person who tries to impart these ideas into numbers and their importance," she explains.

The piece won an honorable mention in 2001's All Alaska Native Juried Art Show. Along with other winners, it traveled to the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts.

The design is Lyon's own.

"I don't think I've ever seen fish with human faces before," she says. But since humans always ascribe their own properties to gods, "any animal that's a god would have to have a human face.

"That's how many cultures tell the viewer this (animal) is really special. They are like us."

To some Alaska cultures, the fish was seen as the mythical source of the metal used to create "coppers." The shield-shaped copper plates were once traded as currency among Native Alaskans and reflected the wealth and status of the owners.

"Legend says that the copper used to make coppers was made from actual copper fish," Lyon said. "I thought, 'That's really a fabulous idea. Giving even more importance to the fish.' "

Lyon tried to impart some of that reverence into her art piece.

"(Salmon) are the bringers of life and should be treated with respect," she said.

She considers their importance just as relevant today, especially in terms of the importance of a good catch. She worries that elevating the Copper River salmon to "chi-chi" status at higher-end restaurants around the country could endanger the run for those most dependent on it.

"It means the difference between having a good life and struggling."

Lyon created her "Gods of the Copper River'' as a commission for a customer. But when it was done, she couldn't bring herself to part with it.

"I wanted to keep this piece because it meant so much to me."

As a substitute for her customer, she made "Raven" and "Salmon Woman," pieces representing the legendary parents of the Tlingit people. "Salmon Woman" comes complete with copper wire hair and breasts below her gills.

"Gods of the Copper River" still hangs in Lyon's home, full of design and meaning, much like the coppers of long-ago Alaskans. She considers it, and the fish it represents, sort of a talisman.

And if it brought her their mythological wealth and power, "I wouldn't mind."

Susan Morgan is the former Daily News arts editor.

Wild Salmon on Parade As the Copper River reds dash up the delta, Anchorage's artistic salmon will make their first appearance from 2 to 4 p.m. June 6 at ConocoPhillips, 700 G St. That's the first official chance for the public to get a sneak preview of this year's 30 new "Wild Salmon on Parade." Later, they'll be mounted around the city in public locations (watch the Daily News for a map and stories), and in late summer, they'll be auctioned off in a fund-raiser for local charities. Last year's salmon raised $50,000 for the Foster Grandparents Program and the Anchorage Cultural Council.

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