Joel Isaak: Fashion designer with a different fabric – fish skin!

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[Not to be confused with Dr. Joel Isaak, lecturer in the History of Modern Political Thought, Cambridge, UK.]

Here we have a paradigm of why Branding is important to promote whatever we do. Joel Isaak is a multi-talented personality at a relatively young age. He is this and he is that and he is everything when it comes to art and fashion.

 

Before going any further, here is a list of words that we should be familiar with. (I know most of you are familiar with them, but I just mention them here for those who have not had any chance or need for knowing them until now.)

Anchorage = a unified home rule municipality in the southcentral region of the State of Alaska, USA
Athabaskan = (Athabascan) a large family of languages of Native peoples of North America; used as a personified adjective to refer to people who speak any one of those languages; found in the names of several businesses and organisations in and around far northern end of North America
Denai’ina = (formerly called Tanaina) the Athabaskan speaking ethino-linguistic group of people, Alaska, USA
Kenaitze Indian Tribe = a tribe of people living in and around Kenai, a city in Kenai Peninsula Borough (like a county) in the state of Alaska, USA
Soldotna = a city in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, Alaska

Creating a setting for the story:

Alaska is the 49th state of the United States of America and the largest state in the US by area. The State of Alaska had been called Russian America before it was purchased from Russia by the USA in 1867, for $ 7.2 million, and admitted to the Union in 1959, after changing its name a couple of times. This least densely populated state is also the least religious state but enjoys the tenth wealthiest state status. Neglected for years, Alaska came into limelight because of the huge oil resource and now placed 4th on domestically oil producing states. Though it is the least religious state, Alaska has 11 Native (indigenous/tribal) populations, with 11 different languages and 22 different dialects, and a part of our Joel Isaak is from one of those tribes – Dena’ina.

Artist “Caught in Between”:

Joel Isaak was born and raised in Soldotna, belonging to the Kenaitze Tribe of the Dena’ina Athabascan, a matriarchal social/family system, from his mother’s side.

 

In one of his interviews, Joel Isaak said he was ‘caught in between’ Native cultural craftsmanship and contemporary artistry for using traditional material and modern mediums; being part of an indigenous tribal ancestry, from Kenaitze Indian Tribe, and a part of Norwegian streak, from German ancestry; having learned millennia-old methods, researching his Native heritage, and getting educated in contemporary universities, developing modern imagery; and so on.

As Alaska is known by different sobriquets ‘The Last Frontier’, ‘Land of Midnight Sun’ and ‘Seward’s Icebox’, Joel is also known as an ‘artist’, for creating works of art; ‘fashion designer’ for producing lines for fashion runways; ‘sculptor’, for sculpting statues using different mediums; and so on.

 

This relatively young artist of 27 years old has been trying to bridge the gap between the modern art world, the Native art world and the people in general, reflecting his duality.

Joel is known to have shown artistic qualities from an early age. His mother, Sharon Isaak, often told people that he would weave simpler designs with his fingers using a string of yearn, watching his grandmother Glady working on her Norwegian Hardanger embroidery.

 

In 2012 Biennial Juried Art exhibition at the Kenai Fine Arts Centre, judged by Anchorage artist Shala Dobson, Joel won the first place for his “T’uqa Boots”, made of salmon fish skin and moose skin. It was a great achievement for the emerging artist to have all his three entries, made of fish skin, metal and clay, got accepted at this exhibition. In his 2013 solo show called ‘Restoration’ at Alaska Native Arts Foundation in city of Anchorage, he was allotted a very closed space; however, Isaak, following his Dena’ina lifestyle and culture with the motto “you adapt to what’s around you”, used that small space displaying his fish skin masks, vases, drums and moose hide silhouette in such a way that he received many kudos.

 

About 350 visitors were known to attend the First Friday event to see Joel’s unique art form which was expressed in hanging salmon skins molded with facial impressions in them, a moose hide with the silhouette of a Native man telling a story, traditional drums made from dried fish skin. Having had 6 exhibitions in three years, he boasted that teaching and showing his art to the world were the two things he wished to be doing, ‘transforming spaces’ being his speciality!

Isaak achieved his bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks with funding support from the CIRI Foundation (Cook Inlet Region, Inc, a for-profit organisation) and was awarded a student fellowship to the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indian and Western Art in Indianapolis. Though he took chemistry as his major at college, which helped him in processing the fish skins, he swapped it for ‘ceramics art’ following the advice of Rebekah Rice, a ceramics artist from New York, who saw more of an artist than a chemist in Joel. So here we have a sculptor.

Everybody Has a Fish Story:

At the Dena’ina Wellness Center, a comprehensive health care centre, for the Kenaitze Indian Tribe on December 11, 2014, visitors gathered in large numbers to marvel at Isaak’s bronze statue ‘family fish camp’, a six-foot one inch fisherman drying fish on a massive wooden fish-rack shaped structure, stood on the premises of the medical center. In his speech to the audience, Joel Isaak stated that everybody he knew had a fish story and that fish would bring people together. His love for the fish is so strong that he wanted each of the visitors to tell their “fish story” to their immediate neighbor right then and there. He made face masks showing emotions in fish skins and exhibited them in shows and used them to teach and demonstrate the ways of curing fish skin and making them into artefacts.

Another statue he helped to make is the ‘Bena’ina Beluga Hunter’ placed just outside security and check out at the Ted Stevens International Airport, Anchorage catches the eye of numerous passengers. More interesting piece of art from Joel is his glass mask, a face mask made of glass!

 

At 2013 Clare to Clare Fashion Show, a fundraiser for Clare House, a 30-year-old Catholic Social Services’ emergency shelter for women and children, and at 2014 Alaskan Native Arts Foundation’s fashion show named ‘Wear Art, Thou?’, Joel Isaak, along with other Alaskan designers, displayed his “wearable fashion clothes” of salmon, halibut and seal skins — wearable fish skin boots, jackets and dresses, and gained much recognition.

Place Based Fashion Talent Lacking Branding:

Though Joel Isaak has so much philosophy and talent and puts in so much effort in bringing out art in different mediums, he has not caught the eye of the international market. His creations are a must at every fashion show, exhibition and fundraising activity in Alaska, but never on commercial perspective.

I wonder it could probably be that he is not interested in popularity, or it could be that as he is still supported by CIRI or government funding, he is not to enter the professional side of the art and fashion. However, as of now, I strongly believe, he has a reputation that is ‘place based’, limited to Alaska, but not the national or international recognition he actually deserves.

Those who visit his website do not find anything interesting and they certainly realise that there is nothing there that exposes him to the world, nor is there anything that exhibits any high-end activity to make visitors glue to it. It is a pity that an artist and fashion designer of his talent is not seen or heard in the national news and magazines or on TV. Very little is known to the world outside Alaska that he gives art classes online!

 

Though he can stand alone in a crowd of designers, with his numerous designs to his credit, he is more often associated with other artists but never independently, which act certainly overshadows his individual capabilities.

I sincerely believe that artists of Joel Isaak’s standards, artistic talents and cultural philosophies should have a Brand of their own which elevates them to the heights they deserve.