Drew Michael is a woodworker, sculptor, mask maker, and teacher who lives in Anchorage, Alaska. Michael was born in Bethel, a village on the west side of Alaska in the Yupik region. Michael and his twin brother, who are Yup’ik and Inupiaq, were adopted at age two by parents outside of their culture. Michael spent his formative years growing up in suburban Eagle River with thirteen brothers and sisters who all lived under the same roof at various times.
His upbringing may sound chaotic, but Michael describes his adoptive parents as nurturing and supportive. “My parents were very instrumental in helping me understand who I was,” he said. “They instilled a belief that I was important and valuable.”
Traditional mask making is used to tell a story and bring people together. Before Western influence changed the face of Alaskan Native culture, communities would gather in the fall, inviting friends and neighbors to come share stories and food. They would dance and sing, and gift each other food from their harvest, ensuring that no one went hungry. “After the dancing, ceremony, and storytelling they would take these beautiful masks and put them into the fi re to release the story,” Michael said.
“That transformation of the form allows that story to be accepted into the spirit world - it connects with the universe.”
Art came into Michael’s life when he was eight years old through his maternal grandfather, who was a woodworker. “My grandfather had a huge wood shop, so he taught me the basics of how to work with tools,” he said. When Michael was fifteen, his grandfather passed away and his father came out as gay, divorcing his mother. Michael was coping with all of that while coming of age during his first year of high school when his mother urged him to take a carving class with Joe Senudnertuck, an Inupiaq master carver. It changed the direction of Michael’s life and gave him focus. “That’s when I began thinking about my culture as a Native person, and I started to embrace it,” he said.
Michael’s masks use traditional elements such as bone and feathers, as well as more modern materials like nails and metal. Keeping with tradition, his masks are deeply personal. When Michael was struggling to understand his sexuality, he channeled the experience into his work. One particular piece turned heads, but it created an honest dialogue and helped Michael understand himself a little bit in the process. He is an artist helping to usher in a modern version of a very traditional medium and doing his part to broaden the reach of mask making in the 21st century. Michael travels a lot to gain perspective, but Alaska is intrinsic to his work. Alaska is also home, “We all need each other here,” he said. “It's nice to know that people are looking out for each other.”