Paintings by Alaska Native artist James Kivetoruk Moses. Above, a hunter surprises a polar bear at its kill. Courtesy Museum of the North

When strong gusts flipped a small plane landing near Teller, on the Seward Peninsula, en route to Shishmaref on August 14, 1953, one 50-year-old Inupiaq Eskimo hunter, trapper, and reindeer herder injuring his knee lost all means of support. “No more work, no more hunting,” he said about the event that caused a career change. “Is only way…drawing pictures.” Recovering, James Kivetoruk (Kivitauraq) Moses resumed a teenage habit now leavened by anecdotes, legends, and knowledge accrued over five decades during which the land had taught and sustained him. His larger paintings today fetch 10 times the price of other Alaska Native artists’; the auctioneer’s gavel normally strikes at $5,000 to $12,000.

Business boomed soon after his mishap. Moses started signing his generally undated images, increasing their value for tourists, collectors, and museums seeking authentic depictions of fading lifeways. “Honeymoon” (1964) shows him and his bride with reindeer harnessed to sleds. He varied bestsellers—bears, boats, husbandry, camp and village vignettes—working on commission too, in the plein-air mold.

Years later, popular, he couldn’t keep up with the demand. Customers loved romantic scenes of “primitive man” pitted against nature, flashbacks of a society supposedly doomed. Ironically, critics label this cultural broker’s oeuvre “outsider art.” Coined in the 1970s, the term lumps together compositions by untrained, “naïve” painters and sculptors with little or no contact to the mainstream art world and often marked by disabilities shaping raw styles. Preparing Moses’ biography, the UAF art professor David Mollett, like many fans, values this autodidact’s bridging of worlds in vibrant tableaus “from the rearview perspective of a man whose living conditions changed so much over his lifetime.”

Moses’ painting techniques

Having long ago traded sled dogs and furs in Chukotka and near his birthplace, Cape Espenberg, the bald, spectacled, willowy invalid Moses recalled with zest listening to Siberians who now languished behind the “Ice Curtain,” bullied by commissars, clinging to scraps of their ethnic heritage. An Arctic Henri Rousseau, he captured hunts, walrus, polar bears, voyages under sail, the ceremonial Wolf Dance, a revenue-cutter crewman and shaman competing at magic, and cryptic creatures: a nude mermaid on a floe’s edge with her feet dangling in the water he’d observed; a giant from a story, swimming among bergy bits; and a huge eagle abducting a man who thus grasped Earth’s roundness. Less known pieces—a toothy “Ike,” a pin-up in a babydoll—might be whimsy or reaching for new marketplace niches.

Two men sit facing one another. Husky and salmon racks in background. Shaman has knife in his belly.
Contest between a shaman and a USS Bear sailor at Port Clarence. Courtesy Bonhams

Moses’ hunter-naturalist eye for detail matched a knack for narrative angles. His colored-pencil, watercolor, and India ink landscapes and seascapes deftly rendered clothing, subsistence and social activities, ice, weather, even light and shadows typical of the seasons or hour of day. Species-specific fur, wood grain in boards, tan lines, chin tattoos, lip plugs, tonsure hairdos, and ashen cloud-bellies brushing horizons segueing from powder-blue to peach reflect skills he kept honing. Seal blood spatters onto snow, shorthand for the brusque northern existence.

Experts praise his “sophisticated mixed media technique” geared toward “dramatic departures from tradition”—conventions established through pictographic walrus-ivory carvings—and remark on his bigheaded figures, frequent frontal views, and stiff yet accurate postures, which all signal outsider art. He drew on paper, poster board, cardboard, and sometimes wood, canvas, or hide, initially in a small format. The lavish use of color distinguished him from his achromatic peers. Still, Moses never fully embraced the process, complaining about “Too much sitting” to one interviewer. At heart, he remained a herder. And modest. Asked about his pictures’ appeal, he admitted lacking refinement. “Young people try to be artists,” he said. “They come up good artists, very good drawing because they were school. But no experience. Don’t know nothing [about] living.”

An authentic Alaska Native artist

He always felt more comfortable speaking Inupiaq, hadn’t finished second grade, and survived his five children. One mysteriously disappeared; one died while asleep, one from the flu, one in a plane crash; and one, when the Shishmaref store ran out of milk and bad weather delayed an emergency shipment from Teller by plane.

In 1975, weakened by strokes and surgeries, Moses, with his wife, Bessie, resided in Nome, a non-Native commercial hub since Yankee-whaler days. Their cabin, abutting the Golden Goose saloon, sat a stone’s throw from black, foam-flecked Bering Strait beaches. Bessie, first acting as his bookkeeper, peddled a briefcase of Moses’ nostalgia at local hotels. She kept a percentage of the profits for herself, she once joked. For an extra five dollars she provided a handwritten summary of the subjects, of routines, beliefs, and a past beyond her clienteles’ ken. 

The quiet octogenarian had stopped after the death of one son but as his spirit ebbed in 1982 picked up a pen again. Bedridden in Nome’s hospital, he sketched the artist as a young man brimming with strength and vitality. This final portrait was a family keepsake, not for sale.


Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. An inveterate cabin dweller, he lives in Fairbanks and works as a wilderness guide. Read more of his work at michaelengelhard.com and read Ice Bear here.

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