SITKA - Audrey Armstrong was fly fishing for silver salmon on the Jim River when the sun shone off a fish. "Wow, I know I can make something with this," she thought.
A scaly art finds its instructor 061914 AE 2 Capital City Weekly SITKA - Audrey Armstrong was fly fishing for silver salmon on the Jim River when the sun shone off a fish. "Wow, I know I can make something with this," she thought.

Mary Catharine Martin

Participants in Audrey Armstrong's fish skin sewing workshop pose outside Sitka's Sheldon Jackson Museum, which provided the free class with the help of several community members and organizations. Participants made bags and backpacks out of pink salmon skin. Armstrong is towards the middle, in yellow.

Mary Catharine Martin

Sarah Williams, Audrey Armstrong and Onagh MacKenzie stand outside the Sitka Sound Science Center with items they've created out of fish skin. MacKenzie plans to use her bag on campus when she returns to Yale for her studies in the fall.

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Story last updated at 6/19/2014 - 2:31 pm

A scaly art finds its instructor

SITKA - Audrey Armstrong was fly fishing for silver salmon on the Jim River when the sun shone off a fish. "Wow, I know I can make something with this," she thought.

Now, she's working to make fish skin an actively used material in Athabascan and other Alaska Native arts once more.

"Fish skin sewing is a traditional art form in danger of being forgotten," said Sheldon Jackson museum curator Jackie Fernandez in a workshop here. "For a long time it was lost."

Armstrong looked in museums for inspiration, teaching herself and learning by trial and error. She made a cup she says is quite awkward.

"In the museum here (the Sheldon Jackson Museum) they have fish skin garments and things. It tells you the materials, but not the process," Armstrong said. "There's really no history on it."

Later, she also learned from elder and artist Fran Reed, who was born outside Alaska but adopted into the Tsimshian Killer Whale clan.

Before she died, Reed told Armstrong, "Audrey, I'm passing the baton onto you. I want you to continue teaching this," Armstrong said.

Now, 12 years after that first salmon, many of her creations are in museums themselves.

At the beginning of June, Armstrong taught a class through Sitka's Sheldon Jackson Museum that offered its participants a chance to create bags out of pink salmon skin. It was the second time she's taught a class through the museum.

Fernandez said fish skin pieces were prolific among Athabascan peoples, but were used and created by most people who lived near water.

"If you needed to have a waterproof bag and you lived near a river or near the ocean, where you could get fish skin (you might make one), or you might trade for the fish skin," she said.

It was used for boots, mittens, bags, parkas, bowls, window coverings, and other purposes. The Sheldon Jackson museum has about 50 pieces, with different species of fish used for different purposes.

"Nowadays there are very few artists still practicing it," Fernandez said.

Joel Isaak, an artist in Soldotna, makes masks and "all sorts of interesting things," including motorcycle jackets, out of fish skin, Fernandez said.

The process

Most students created bags or backpacks out of two cut, gutted, scraped and sewn pink salmon, decorated with beads and abalone and topped with pig skin for any necessary closures.

Armstrong had never worked with pink salmon before.

"It's a very thin skin," she said. "I would love to use it again, because it's very translucent."

It's important, first off, to scrape all flesh off the skin, she said. You have to do it carefully, so as not to tear the skin, but you also have to do it extremely thoroughly - any flesh can host bacterial growth that will eventually destroy the bag.

Armstrong uses a deer clavicle to scrape her skins.

Traditionally, several different practices help get rid of bacteria. One is soaking the skin in urine. Smoking it with alder branches gets any remaining water out of it. A more modern technique to minimize bacteria is soaking in dish detergent.

It's not a clean process.

"You're going to get messy," Armstrong said.

A skin itself is not waterproof, Armstrong said. It has to be treated, traditionally with seal oil or bear grease.

Armstrong also decorated her bowl with dentalia.

"I've never been a seamstress of anything, let alone fish skin," said student Onagh MacKenzie, who is a Yale student spending the summer in Sitka while doing a project on subsistence. The class allowed her to learn about subsistence not only from the perspective of food, but also of art.

Kim Elliot, who was adopted by the Kagwantan clan, said she's always been fascinated with Native-made things. She makes deer skin drums.

"I'm real excited about what I've learned," she said.

Sitka resident Nhung Dinh put her ideas into practice even before the class. She needed a new wallet and decided to make one out of ling cod skin. She likes the idea of fish skin as a local, sustainable resource that, because it's not imported, allows for the reduced use of fossil fuels. She also used a traditional tanning method - a urine soak - in its creation.

"I think it's being very resourceful," she said. "I want to make more wallets."

Charlotte and Mary Bernhardt, mother and daughter, respectively, took the class together.

"I was kind of worried about doing this class, because I was worried I would get frustrated," Mary Bernhardt said. "It turned out to be really fun and easy. And it was something fun to do with my mom."

Student Karen McIntyre was born in Bethel, raised in Reno, Nev., and moved to Sitka as an adult. As an "Irish Eskimo," she felt a disconnect with her culture, she said. The class was a way for her to reconnect.

"I am going to become a master artist myself," she told the group, smiling.

The Friends of the Sheldon Jackson Museum and the Sitka Charitable Trust made it possible for the museum to offer the class for free. Sitka Sound Seafood donated 24 pink salmon, and the Sitka Sound Science Center donated the space necessary for the workshop.

Armstrong plans to return to Sitka for another workshop next year.

"The class was far more than I expected," said Judi Lehmann. "I can't wait to do it again."