Mark of Time. Courtesy Rika Mouw.

Fooled by boundaries and bureaucratic labels, one might believe that once a landscape or seascape is protected, officially set aside, it will be safe.

The environmental jewelry of Rika Mouw, a coast-dweller on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, references connectivity and calls attention to less visible climate change and ocean acidification, which exacerbate more obvious dangers such as drilling, logging, and overfishing. Galleries across the country show artworks by this Homer-based sculptor and studio jeweler, as do that town’s Pratt Museum, the Anchorage Museum, and Washington, DC’s Department of the Interior Museum.

Mouw’s Judicial Collars series, part of the Decolonizing Alaska traveling group show, explores the notion that neither species nor places should suffer for wont of legal standing in a system skewed toward commerce, abstract agencies, and human stakeholders. Arctic Caribou, a gyre of polished antler cross-sections, suggests the Porcupine herd’s milling crush, the flow of the continent’s longest land-mammal migration that nourishes Gwich’in Athabaskans, grizzlies, ravens, foxes, mosquito pollinators, and wolves. Her wood-chip ruff Tongass Yellow Cedar celebrates trees logged for decades in our nation’s largest national forest now subject to frost kill from lack of snow cover during the winter months. Naturally fallen, decomposing giants or “nurse logs” sustain saplings rising phoenix-like from their corpses. Salmon closes the interdependency loop. Its vertebrae coils and carved alder pieces evoke bonds between vegetation and fish, between forest and sea. Spent, spawned-out husks that eagles and bears drag from shallows fertilize woods; plants check riverbank erosion and keep salmon streams clear, shaded, and cool, lining fry’s home ground and highways for their ocean trek. The collars’ shape and complexity mirror these cycles.

caribou antler cross-sections organized over black background
Judicial Collars: Arctic Caribou. Courtesy Rika Mouw.

Trained as a landscape architect as well as a goldsmith, Mouw has long pondered how to harmonize artifacts with their surroundings. Denali National Park’s road—a highway through designated wilderness—inspired Red Carpet, her 91-inch by 24-inch quilt of flame-tongue fireweed leaves. Assembled while Mouw was an artist-in-residence there, it reminds us what a privilege immersing ourselves in this glorious, rawboned geography is. After Red Carpet had been photographed, Mouw, respecting the source, scattered the foliage where it originated. She also no longer uses metals, whose mining causes collateral damage.

Fireweed blazing pink in new clearings provides metaphor and material for Mouw’s oeuvre. One of the first plants to reclaim country forest fires have cindered, it stands for rebirth, resilience, and reconfiguration—the future. Dubbed “the Sourdough’s Calendar” by Alaskans, it spells northern summers’ radiant brevity: the fewer blossoms bejewel its stem, the sooner frost will arrive, mottling leaves with multi-hued rust. Mouw honors this willowherb as a seasonal carpe diem with Mark of Time, her time-lapse collage of seedpod wreaths splitting, fluffing with down. 

quilt of red fireweed leaves on black background

Her current projects include a mural-size piece of hundreds of mussel shells she collects on local beaches. Cleaned, sorted, and shaped, these “amazing pearls” coalesce into overlapping scale armor, a frieze of undulating currents and tides. Mussels, a beloved subsistence food, grow in colonies tellingly referred to as “banks.” The subtext of this display is ocean acidification. Increasing carbonic acid from carbon dioxide absorbed by saltwater hampers shell-building mollusks, corals, plankton, crustaceans, and even some fishes. A second aquatic work-in-progress entails a Yup’ik Eskimo kuspuk—a parka-type garment—sewn from fish vertebrae and photographed against the backdrops of critical salmon habitats: American and Anaconda Creek, imperiled by Donlin Gold; and Bristol Bay, catchment basin of the proposed Pebble Mine. The skeletal installation, in Mouw’s words, will embody “the ghost of wild salmon runs and the subsistence lifestyle,” two linked, perhaps doomed, ways of being in and perceiving the world.

Red Carpet by Rika Mouw.

In her life and output, this artist of gentle, refined bearing keeps returning to a landscape that has brought her to tears, one she’s explored on foot and by raft, one that on its 60th anniversary again lies besieged. The birthplace of caribou generations inspired her most potent conceptual piece, Gift of the Arctic Refuge. Text from the decree that established the “Wildlife Range,” as it was called, lines this treasure chest. From it, snow geese wing like better angels of our nature—a skein of hand-torn-paper messengers bearing the words of those who fought for this sanctuary. “Through bird migrations alone,” Mouw says, “ the Refuge connects peoples and places all over the world.” The idea of wilderness is the great gift America made to itself and humanity. It defies the twin bane of rampant development and ecological degradation. Like fireweed, and Mouw’s process and philosophy, it germinates hope and one message supreme: Cherish and defend what’s entrusted to us! 

Wilderness benefits evolution, the prospering of wildlife and civilizations. Its preservation thus is a moral imperative. The Refuge’s most direct impact on us is symbolic, however. Each year, hundreds of visitors flock there, but thousands who’ll never do so find courage just knowing that it exists.


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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