James Kivetoruk Moses, Inupiaq
By David Mollett, Associate Professor
University of Alaska Fairbanks
On August 14th, 1953 a small plane returning to Shishmaref from a fishing trip
in Bristol Bay crash-landed upside down on Ear Mountain, 46 miles north of
Teller on the Seward Peninsula.1
Moses (ca. 1903-1982) was born near Cape Espenberg on the northern tip of the
Seward Peninsula. His mother died giving birth to him and his father died soon
thereafter as well. He was raised by an uncle with a first name of Moses. His
early years were in the Espenberg area but he lived as well in Deering and
Shishmaref as an adult. He worked as a hunter, trapper, trader and reindeer
herder. His life as an artist in Nome began at the relatively late age of 50. A
passenger, James Kivetoruk Moses suffered a badly broken leg and was henceforth
unable to maintain his subsistence-hunting career. During recuperation from his
knee injury, Moses returned to a childhood interest in drawing and began a
successful new life as a professional artist.
Moses quickly became known for his works on paper that were a painting-like
synthesis of mixed media techniques: colored pencil, ink and watercolor. He had
doubtless observed his brother-in-law, George Ahgupuk as precedent. Ahgupuk of
Shishmaref was nearly ten years younger and was already well established as
Alaska’s most notable Eskimo graphic artist.
It wasn’t long after the accident that Moses’ first drawings were being sold.
His wife Bessie carried about a stack of the pictures in a black briefcase and
would solicit door to door at the hotels in Nome.2
Moses’ early works were formatted much like Ahgupuk’s small horizontal
rectangles, five or six inches high. He also composed these first images in a
manner similar to that of his brother-in-law; broad flat landscape vistas with
figures depicted small in size relative to the overall space. They were likewise
done in black and white media such as pencil or ink though he early on begins to
make mainly color pictures, a practice that sets him apart from his
contemporaries. These earliest works were unsigned or signed James Moses, the
name everyone knew him by socially, but soon the artist started using his
Inupiaq name, Kivetoruk as signature, to enhance sales to tourists and other
Even in these earliest works, a temperament emerges in contrast to his fellow
Alaskan Native artists. There is an attention to visual detail and an enthusiasm
for narrative that soon become hallmarks of his style. The Blazo can in an early
work Woman Ice Fishing (ca.1954) is a typical anecdotal point of interest. The
ubiquitous Blazo can for white gas was an integral part of village life in the
1950’s and 60’s. The upside down presence here demonstrates a sense of humor and
a feel for documentary detail. Naturally it is upside down because the top was
Some Moses images might be difficult to interpret accurately but for a
handwritten account that accompanied the work at the time of sale. Moses’ wife
who was more fluent in English, would write these stories down for the client
usually for an extra fee of five dollars. She jokes in an interview about
skimming some profit off the top for these sales.3
Moses understood the marketplace and capitalized on it,
selling his pictures for about one to five hundred dollars while his
contemporaries were pricing theirs less than 20 dollars. In his later years
after becoming well known he could not keep up with the demand. He protested
gaining additional clients.. The written accounts vary from quite extensive to
perfunctory but their frequency shows Moses was generally fond of inscribing his
images and would do so for gifts as well as sold pieces. This inscription
accompanied a polar bear picture that was a gift or commission.4
The narrative specificity of his imagery plays out into a wide range of
subjects. When depicting typical Eskimo lifestyle activities such as hunting, he
includes autobiographical information. Here he depicts an hunting story
concerning his capture of two huge problem wolves. His subjects include:
portraits and groups of individuals, scenes of daily life especially hunting and
travel, wildlife, with and without human presence, village celebrations with
dancing, historical accounts, and folkloric stories of shamans and mythology.
His artist compatriots depicted scenes from Eskimo life but specific places or
individuals are rarely shown. Or if they intend such specificity their skills
are not up to the task so their figures and places remain anonymous while Moses
bears down on the unique and individual. At the present time Moses’ work still
commands 10 times the prices of the other Native artists. A large picture
typically sells for $5,000 to $12,000.
Moses embellishes his pictures with as much information as his considerable
skills allow. He reaches for an illusionistic realism through naturalistic color
and meticulously rendered texture. He takes pains to show particular furs and
clothing designs. We can see that the shaman’s pants are sealskin and a
particular type of seal at that. The lighter part at the back of the legs tells
us it was a smaller seal and the many sets of concentric rings dotting the leg
fronts indicate a ring seal. The Chief’s New Son-In-Law shows grey wolf ruffs
for the men and a brown to black shaded wolverine ruff for the woman. Parkas
shown in the portraits are subjects unto themselves; they are fancy dress
outfits demonstrating position and status in the social order as well as which
side of the Bering Straits the wearer dwells. Moses had nostalgia for the times
when the Siberian Natives were allowed to visit the Alaskan side. He frequently
indicates costumes from the Russian side with the black and white mottled fur of
the domestic reindeer bred for their exotic coats. He also did some pictures
depicting a trading dispute with Russian visitors.
There is a remarkable attention to the mechanical sense of things as well as
subtle observations of nature. The interiors have not only convincing wood grain
in the boards but each board has its own overall light or dark character. The
drumming and dancing figures’ palms are lighter than the tan and weathered backs
of their hands. And the horizontal log with remnants of branches on the wall
tapers naturalistically from one end to the other.
Moses gives a very telling response to a question in his only published
interview with Yvonne Mozee5
The interviewer asks:
People like your drawings. Why do you think that is?
|James: (Very long pause) Even customers, they like to see pictures. I’m not good
artist but I have more experience—seal, oogruk, walrus reindeer, hunting,
trapping. I been many hunting twenty years over, up in Espenberg. That’s all.
More experience. You know Beltz School (in Nome). Young people try to be
artists. They come up good artists, very good drawing because they were school.
But no experience. Don’t know nothing living. That’s all.
Moses’ thoughtful and perceptive response here shows awareness of the strengths
to be found in his work. In spite of any formal or technical artistic
shortcomings, his life experience of culture, history and nature itself, enable
him to make powerful statements that compensate for schooling. His myriad pen
markings take on the qualities of naturalistic fur. He integrates the pen and
ink with color media very successfully often using black as a color rather than
simply decorative outline. The seawater in his pictures has the characteristic
blue black seen often off the Seward Peninsula in windy weather. The landscape
and sky in his pictures are keenly observed and laid down in a naturalistic
manner. All his outdoor pictures establish a transition from light yellow at the
horizon to an increasingly dark blue at the top of the picture as is routinely
seen in the Arctic. He laces together blues and reds into the purple shadows of
the clouds. One imagines Moses spending many the contemplative moment studying
the land, sea and sky.
Like many other artists, both trained and untrained, Moses made multiple
versions of popular images. Images that sold well were repeated as demand
warranted. However upon comparing these like images, one sees considerable
variation in terms of composition and narrative. While it is difficult to
address an exact evolution from image to image because the pictures are not
usually dated and provenance not well documented, one can occasionally see
evidence of progression or at least an interest in experimental variation. Later
versions of the same story demonstrate enhanced pictorial sophistication. A
doubtless earlier version of the swimming shaman lacks the concentric ripples
and sunset reflection of a later, more confident version. The Eskimo Mermaid
pictures usually show the mermaid as sitting rather erect and square on the edge
of the ice with her legs in the water. However there also exists at least one
version with the mermaid striking quite a cheesecake pose reflecting Moses’
sense of humor and awareness of popular culture imagery.
Edmund Carpenter has stated that the best among the contemporary Native American
artists have gone over to a western tradition, made it their own and brought it
back to their own culture.6
Moses falls into this category in several regards. He had an intuitive
understanding of the need to excel at his craft. In spite of a lack of training
he labored to accomplish pictorial feats of substantial achievement. He
developed an uncanny deftness with simple drawing materials and pushed the
medium to approach a
fully painted look. He improved his skills steadily over the period of his
activity. Though self-taught, he taught himself well. Furthermore, Moses
selected subjects for his work that while specific and often personal in
narrative, resonate widely throughout the culture. The pictures form a telling
documentation of Inupiat life and values as seen from the rearview perspective
of a man who’s living conditions changed so much over his lifetime. There is not
only nostalgia for an earlier time but also nostalgia for his youth.
Glenn Simpson, a professor emeritus at University of Alaska Fairbanks and a
Tsimshian Native American, visited Moses a number of times in Nome. He paid a
final visit at near the end of Moses life. Moses, having suffered multiple
strokes was much impaired and always a small man now was quite shrunken. He had
still managed to do one last picture. It was in ballpoint pen, which Glenn
speculates was probably for ease of manipulation. It was a portrait of himself
as a strong robust young man. He was not interested in selling it but planned to
leave it to his family.
1 Mary Jane Anuqsraaq Melovidov, “James Kivetoruk Moses,”
Eskimo Drawings, Suzi Jones ed., Anchorage Museum of History and Art, 2003, 123.
2 Interview with Nancy Baker of Fairbanks, AK, pilot and traveling salesperson
who traveled frequently to Nome in the early 1950’s.
3 Yvonne Mozee, “Conversation with Kivetoruk Moses,” Alaska
Journal 8, no. 2, 109.
4 Yvonne Mozee, 109.
5 Yvonne Mozee, 109.
6 Carol Ann (Bunny) McBride, An Interview with Edmund
Carpenter, http://faculty, virginia.edu/phantom/mcbride.html