The Highlight of the Month program at The Indian Craft Shop focuses on a particular craft area, region or artist family/group. Our aim is to illustrate the diversity of tribal groups and the wide variety of artistic expressions and traditions in the country today.
Ted Mayac, Jr., is one of the premier ivory carvers from Alaska. He is known for his elegant carvings of loons and other arctic birds meticulously carved from walrus ivory. His attention to detail has landed his art in collections around the world.
Ivory carving gained popularity in the 1900s, after the Alaska gold rush. Prior to that, carvings were made for functional and ceremonial use, including charms to aid hunters. Today's artists carve a variety of animals, birds and figures from ivory. Ted is part of the Mayac Family, one of the best-known ivory carving families in Alaska. Originally, from King Island, the Mayac's have gained an international reputation for their realistic carvings of arctic birds made of walrus ivory.
Fascinated by the beauty and the variety of bird life in the arctic, Ted continues the family tradition of carving birds. He has been carving ivory since childhood. At 14, he was making small pins among other small items. He learned to carve from his father, Ted Mayac, Sr. "He just let me work on my own and then helped me when I needed a hand." They still collaborate, sharing tools and techniques and buying their ivory together.
Today, Ted carves birds from around the world with exacting accuracy to the traits of a variety of species, adding incredible detail to each. "I have over 68 birds that I carve in a variety of poses," says Ted. "I carve them floating on water, standing, fluffing their wings, preening and full body flying." Caught in a moment of time, his birds are so lifelike you expect them to swim or take flight in an instant.
Loons are one of his most popular bird carvings; he makes them in a variety of sizes, from small single birds up to mothers with babies 4-5 inches or more. When asked which his favorite is, he says he likes them all but enjoys the challenge of the Wood Duck. "Wood Ducks have such amazing colors, it is a challenge to refine them and really make them lifelike," he says. The work is painstaking, taking about 6 hours to make a loon and 8 to 12 hours for the more elaborate birds.
Availability of ivory is unpredictable. "We keep our ears open for anyone with walrus ivory," says Ted. "It's been harder to find whole tusks," he says. "The ice has been thawing earlier these past few years and, as a result, the walrus migrate sooner and the hunters have less time to hunt." The ivory must be seasoned to avoid cracks and breakage
Ted does the cutting, drilling and messy work in his garage workshop and the etching, painting, and buffing in the studio in his basement. Ted has created stencils for each of his birds to help him get started. He stencils the form and then cuts the body shape. "If I'm not careful, I can break several blades," says Ted. He uses drills and files to round out the shape and then files and sands to refine the detail on the birds. Then, the figure is ready for etching.
"I begin with a single line etching tool to set the boundaries," says Ted. "My favorite single line tool was made by my father and then passed down to me." He has 14 different hand etching tools he uses to get different lines, textures and effects. Occasionally he'll use fine point drills for some etching. The grooves made by the etching helps the piece hold the inks and paints, including permanent markers in more than 200 different colors. The finishing process includes more sanding, polishing and buffing.
"I never really thought of myself as an artist," says Ted. "Carving is just something I've always done. When I'm not carving, I'm hunting or fishing. In the summer, I fish for salmon and whatever else that is running. In the fall, I hunt for caribou or moose." Ted has a growing interest in photography and enjoys capturing images of the beauty of Alaska and its birds. "I want people to be inspired by my work," says Ted. It is an easy wish to fulfill. These small sculptures can't help but remind us of the diversity and beauty of all winged creatures, and renew our appreciation for all living things.
©The Indian Craft Shop 2005