In classical Alutiiq society, graphic arts had many functions. Careful decoration added beauty to objects, showing respect for the plants and animals that provided for people and insured future prosperity. Pictures also preserved history. Like books, they created a physical record of the past, recording events and stories.
Painted miniature workboard, showing a swimming otter. Karluk One site, Koniag, Inc. Collection.
Some images were also family symbols. Imagine that a hunter killed two seals with one harpoon strike. This very lucky event might be symbolized in paintings on his household implements. When people saw the painted tools they would be reminded of the hunter’s skill and good fortune, and know the objects belong to his family. The picture preserved a story, celebrated thehunter’s talent, and expressed ownership.
Painted images, including geometric designs, animals, human figures, boats, celestial bodies and spirits were the final decorative touches on many objects. Alutiiq people painted pictures on wooden objects–hats, paddles, arrows, bows, boxes, masks, and many other implements. They also pecked pictures on boulders, etched designs into stone and bone weaponry, and created images through weaving and embroidery.
Before the availability of commercially made pigments, Kodiak artists created paints from plants and minerals. Artists extracted colors from hemlock bark, grasses and berries, or created colorful powders by crushing red shale, iron oxide, copper oxide, and charcoal with a mortar and pestle, and mixed the resulting powder with a binder of oil or blood. Artists applied paint to objects with their fingers, a small stick, or possibly a paintbrush made with animal hair.