Story last updated at 12/23/2009 - 12:19 pm
HOMER - When Karin Marks, owner of Art Shop Gallery in Homer, got a call from People magazine in July, she thought the person on the other end of the phone wanted to sell her a subscription. When the long-distance caller told Marks People was looking for handmade ornaments from each of the 50 states, had Googled galleries around the country and narrowed their Alaska search down to hers, Marks was skeptical.
"I almost didn't think it was true. People do crazy things," said the gallery owner, who suspected someone was attempting to play a trick on her.
But when the caller asked Marks to send several ornaments made by Anchor Point artist Cassie Chmielowicz and followed up the request with specific shipping information, Marks decided the call was on the level.
"When they offered up a FedEx number to overnight (the ornaments) to New York City, I figured they were legit," Marks said.
Legit, indeed. The ornament-a smiling, rosy-cheeked Eskimo paddling a kayak, with a white fur seal riding on the stern-was chosen by People to be featured as the Alaska selection in its December 2009 Holiday edition, copies of which Marks has not been able to find.
"I've never seen the magazine, but I know it's out there because I'm getting calls from all over the United States," Marks said of resulting orders.
Like Marks, Chmielowicz has never seen the magazine, although Cabin Fever, an Anchorage gallery where Chmielowicz's ornaments are sold, did find a copy of the magazine and has the page featuring the kayak ornament displayed beneath Chmielowicz's creations.
Originally from California, Chmielowicz moved to Seldovia in the late 1970s to be around other family members.
"We'd get together and play Yahtzee and Scrabble and then thought we should be doing something instead of playing games, so we started making ornaments," said Chmielowicz, who has since moved to Anchor Point.
The kayak design was one of the first items they made, with animals-black and brown bears and seals-and berry baskets becoming recent additions to the design. Small pieces of fur-otter, muskrat and mink-add texture, as do beads and touches of gold trim.
The line of ornaments has expanded to include Eskimos on skies, holding dance fans and carrying berry baskets, and even an assortment of Eskimo angels, carried in gift stores and galleries around the state. Chmielowicz also belongs to a co-op with an outlet at the Sears Mall in Anchorage. As a co-op member, she is required to put in six shifts a month. To keep up, Chmielowicz and her husband, Steve, commute back and forth, using Steve's retired military status to take advantage of low-cost overnight military accommodations.
"I sell them like crazy," Chmielowicz said of the ornaments' popularity.
She is selling even more, thanks to People magazine.
"Instead of buying one, people are buying four. Karin is asking for more. She said one lady bought two, but when she found out about People magazine, she bought 12," said Chmielowicz, adding with a laugh, "I can't keep up."
She also reported one Ketchikan business that carries her ornaments but is closed during the winter hurriedly developed a Web site to feature the People-chosen item.
"I couldn't believe (People) found me because I live in Anchor Point, out in the woods, but it's because of Karin's (Web) site," Chmielowicz said.
Not ready to let her creative flow stop with the kayaker, Chmielowicz is already considering a new design that will top the existing ones. Literally.
"We're going to make Eskimo angel tree-toppers," she said of plans for the future.