New coloring book integrates art, culture
When Britt'Nee Brower was a kid, she loved coloring.
"I grew up in Utqiaġvik, born and raised, so I remember we had all these coloring contests and I was always so excited about them," she said.
She'd pick up the pages from the stores, take them home, and add her own splash of creativity.
"I remember winning these 'Alvin and the Chipmunks' tickets," she said with a laugh. "You don't see it as often anymore and I'd like to bring that back again."
She's bringing it full circle, in fact, by putting her artistic talents to work creating her very own coloring book.
The Iñupiat Coloring Book book features simple, elegant designs of animals like the aiviq, or walrus, the kayuqtuq, or red fox, and natchiq, or ringed seal. Even the little siksrik — Arctic ground squirrel — makes an appearance.
The drawings and pages are lined with traditional qupak patterns, which Brower hopes will help ground her work in her hometown.
"I'm still learning a lot of the qupak pattern meanings. I'm still trying to figure them out because I know there's a lot of symbolism behind them and some are family qupaks so only a few of my canvasses have them," she said. "It's one of those visual reinforcements that incorporates our culture and makes it uniquely Iñupiat. It's something to find that source of identity."
In addition, all of the animal names are featured first in Iñupiaq, then translated into English.
"Our kids are our future, especially for our language," said Brower, who now lives in Anchorage, where she's raising her young daughter. "I really wanted to focus on language preservation because it has affected me personally. I've been wanting to learn Iñupiaq. I know we've taken Inupiaq in elementary school through middle school, but still there's that missing piece where you can't quite speak it fluently. When I was a little girl, my aaka only spoke in Iñupiaq and there's a really big disconnect because I would have to talk through my dad. He doesn't speak fluently but he would have to translate the few words he did know to her. That's where it really hit me, deep inside my heart, here's our main source of identity —our language — and my dad can't speak it, I know words but I can't speak it. Here's my daughter and I really want to expose her to it but it's hard with that language barrier."
So, she asked herself a simple question:
"How did we learn when we were little?" she said. "We had the most fun learning the animals first."
Arctic animals are the focus of this coloring book, which she hopes is just the first of many.
This project is the product of leadership training she joined through the Alaska Humanities Forum. While in attendance, she had to pick three mentors who would help her work through a series of personal and professional goals.
"One of my personal goals was I haven't been involved with art in a long time, probably since 2005 when I did the Kivgiq logo. It was one thing I put aside because I was focusing on my education," she said.
She chose Heather Dongoski, Kyan Olanna, and Jerami Marsh, all of whom she credits with getting her where she is today.
"They're the ones who really guided me in what I could do and what tools I could use to use my talents for a better purpose — to serve our community," said Brower.
Though she does plan to continue with her studies, she's earned a degree and is now looking for options to continue with her art. She's currently pursuing a tattoo apprenticeship and is considering trying to make a career of it, with a focus on traditional and Alaska Native tattoos.
Though she's not sure precisely what her next step will be at this point, she said she wants her culture to be at the core, especially for her daughter.
"That's one thing I do miss about living in Utqiaġvik is the community is small, so we have our traditional games, all the events going on like blanket toss, Nalukataq, Fourth of July," she said. "I recently brought her to Kivgiq this year, just to expose her. She doesn't know how to dance, so I wanted to teach her there. I thought, I really need to teach her these things that I was taught as a little girl in Inupiat class and there's that cultural disconnect for her living here. But she's getting exposure little by little — whatever I can do here in Anchorage."
After all, she said, if she can't always bring her daughter to the Arctic, she can bring the Arctic to her daughter, one coloring book at a time.
Britt'Nee Brower is holding the Kivliq Coloring Contest, which is open through Aug. 1. It features one page from her new coloring book and the winner will receive a free copy once it's published. You can find the entry page with the brown bear picture to the right.
More information about Brower and her art can be found at www.kivliq.com.
Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.