Peek inside Aleknagik artist's process as she paints for Obama

Jul 8, 2018

Painter Apayo Moore lives a subsistence lifestyle off-the-grid near Aleknagik to honor her Yup’ik heritage and inspire her painting.  For her, a good painting means your eyes catch something new with every glance.

Aleknagik painter Apayo Moore shows off a work-in-progress of a summer day picking salmonberries, modeled after a mural she painted for the Bethel Youth Facility.
Credit Austin Fast / KDLG

“I like to live my life in the way that my life is my work,” Moore said. “If I don't get to start practicing the subsistence way of life, then I then am not doing my research to paint what I love and what I want to share with others.”

Moore has drawn from that experience to brighten towns all across Bristol Bay with her murals, including in Dillingham, Igiugig and Bethel. She also hopes to inspire other young Yup’ik people to practice subsistence and employ themselves through small business.

“The subsistence way of life is so important to keep our people and our culture going in a way that is healthy and can bring us back emotionally with our mental well-being to the place that we never should have been taken away from,” Moore said.

Read the full transcript of our conversation with Moore below, including a vivid description of the imagery, emotions and process she used to create “Our Way of Life,” a painting to thank Pres. Barack Obama for protecting Bristol Bay from oil drilling.

Moore sells her artwork at her shop in Aleknagik.
Credit Austin Fast / KDLG

How do I define myself as an artist?

I'd say that when I first moved back home (from college), it was easy to pick my subject matter, and I really focused a lot on salmon. And that kind of led more to thinking about why am I painting these salmon? And why are they so important to me? It all boiled down to it's part of our life. It's who we are. And what that led to was, well, who am I?

I'm a Yup'ik person from Bristol Bay. Well, what is that? What does it mean to do that and be that? And that goes back to our subsistence way of life. What was my role in it and what were my goals for becoming more Yup'ik and rooted to who we were?

I like to live my life in the way that my life is my work. So, if I don't get to start practicing the subsistence way of life, then I then am not doing my research to paint what I love and what I want to share with others.

Moving to Aleknagik was definitely an intentional move. It was, do I want to live in Dillingham and do I want to just have a job where I'm working 8 to 5 or 9 to 5 and dedicating my life to a job? Or do I want to live in a community that's a little bit closer to subsistence living and village life?

Just coming up the road was a no-brainer because I've always wanted to live on a lake where I have an incredible view and feel like I could be inspired to be outside.

My theory in all of this is that with depression on the rise and people who have things really easily available to them -- like light switches! You wake up in the morning -- flick on the lights. You don't have that extra moment to realize how lucky you are to have that. So these extra steps in the morning where I need to start the generator and get all of that going, it gets me outside no matter what the weather is.

So, when it's beautiful out, it's kind of like "Wow! I'm so lucky to live here!" and when it's raining, it's more like, "Wow! I'm so happy to feel the rain on my face. This feels way better than it looks from inside! We should maybe come outside today."

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"Our Way of Life"
Credit Apayo Moore

This one is "Our Way of Life." It was 2015 when I painted this. It was actually a commission. There were a few nonprofits involved in the purchase, and they sent it as a gift to President Obama when he closed Bristol Bay to offshore oil leasing and drilling. This was a thank you gift to him, and they just let me go with whatever I was feeling in my heart.

I thought well, if he cares for our way of life, and this was a lot of his reasoning for doing this for us, then he should see what he's helped us to preserve or ensure that our future generations can participate in it.

So when I was painting it or even just drawing up the concept, I was thinking what are the best parts of subsistence? When we're doing fish, what are the absolute best parts? When you're seeing fish go into your net, you just get this -- each splash is like a splash of butterflies just bursting in your stomach. You're just so happy and you can't help but laugh! You're tickled.

You're out there and you're in the water, and the water's kind of cold. The lady's pulling in the net and you're just so thankful at the same time, too, and it's exhilariating. Maybe you're feeling some fish if they're so thick, you're feeling them bump on your legs and you're thinking, this is just impressive and amazing. So, I wanted to show her joy with her wonder.

In the background, there's a grandpa and two grandchildren, and they're helping with the net and getting some of their own fish. And the kids are learning how to pull the fish out of the net. And if you've ever been with kids picking fish at a net, it's kind of an ordeal sometimes. It could take an adult just a couple seconds, but the kids are exploring it! It takes someone like a grandparent who's going to be patient and make sure that that experience is a positive one, so the kids then associate happiness and this time that they got to spend with someone that they loved, so the next year they don't think of it as work. They're thinking of it as just a happy, happy time.

You have someone already working in the smokehouse, in the drying rack. And they're putting fish up and just that in itself on a nice day, it's so rewarding. You're so fulfilled when you see the work that you've put into it and it's going well and the fish are drying how you want them to dry. None of them are getting wasted, but you're also babying them and looking through all the cracks just in case any bugs are getting in there, and kind of clean them off.

It's like gardening! It's like when you plant a seed and you're wanting it to grow well and have a nice, thick stalk when you're bringing it up and you're watering it -- ooh, it's a little bit dry, but you want to make sure that it's going to make it all the way to something delicious.

Someone else is coming down with the next tote -- they're towing a tote on the four-wheeler and then some other kids are running behind them and so it shows this community aspect of what subsistence fishing is.

You have the small house in the background and if you're really thinking into it, you're thinking, 'Alright, there's one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Seven people are going to be sleeping in that little, tiny house back there?! And there's only one outhouse! Oh my gosh! The line for that in the morning. What do they do? I don't know! The little boys are just going to go around the house and it's more of the women's outhouse, I guess. I don't know.

While I'm painting things like this, it's more of alright -- I'm going to start with this. And starting with the fish and thinking, "Well, what else could be there? Oh, there's corks!" What else? A woman pulling it in. Oh, a family right here. What else am I missing? The birds in the sky! And so, it's almost like a meditative experience where you're closing your eyes and you're envisioning and placing everything that you need in that one moment, trying to go all the way down to the bugs that are buzzing by you and the wind. Where's the wind coming from? How do I paint the grass? Which way is the wind going and how does that sound to me? You're trying to capture all of those feelings and put it into a colorful picture so people could somehow at least grab a little bit of what you're experiencing for real in the outdoors.

Parts of it (I remember from doing as a child with my family), but parts of it is also seeing what other families did. This scene actually reminds me a lot more of when I commercial-fished in Ekuk, and I was able to go there for a couple of summers with our neighbors. There's just families that go there. In the wintertime, no one's living there. Maybe a cannery watchman, but in the summertime, all of these new families move in there and you're watching how everyone does things a little bit different and what they're doing to incorporate and how they're learning from each other. Taking what you know yourself, it's almost like this the ideal from what I've experienced myself, to what I've seen to trying to manifest what I see the best scenario being for our people.

A good painting will have several different scenes in it so your eyes catch something new each time you take a glance.

Apayo Moore's art studio in Aleknagik.
Credit Austin Fast / KDLG

Art is so important to our people, and we are so incredibly gifted naturally, we don't even know it! We'll think that we can't draw but we whip out a pencil and suddenly we're thinking, 'Holy moley! I have this hidden gift inside of me, and I just haven't been brave enough to share it with the world.' And you don't have to do that. Statistics come out and we always are made out to be these really impoverished communities that don't have anything.

Something that I hope that other people can see is that we can employ ourselves through our own small businesses, being in our communities that practice subsistence and the subsistence way of life is so important to keep our people and our culture going in a way that is healthy and can bring us back emotionally with our mental well-being to the place that we never should have been taken away from.