John has produced three dimensional framed mixed media art since 1996. The art celebrates the Yup'ik dance, the environment, animals, fish, birds, and Yup'ik stories adorned in masks. By developing a unique blend of modern and traditional motifs, combining watercolor, acrylic, wood, feathers, ivory, found clam shells or small crab shells, sand, ivory, reindeer and human hair. Before relocating to Bethel 2009, Oscar developed a studio in Mekoryuk with the support of the community and the Alaska Marketplace Competition sponsored by the Alaskas Federation of Natives, but had to close due to the recession in mid 2000's.
Before the first white man ever stood on Alaska Native land, "Our ancestors did not know the name of Jesus Christ until the missionaires came" said one Elder, "That was why it was natural to believe the Word (Qaneryaraq) in written form. God always gives us the opportunity to share love with our fellow neighbor," and added "Whether by hunting, fishing, gathering, working, giving, volunteering and all those actions that prove our love for one another. Our ancestors also had faith, hope and love, and actually lived those qualities in their daily lives," said the Elder.
Below is a life long research by John while listening to Elders, many of whom are long gone already. From daily encounters and story telling by Elders, and as a little boy to witness real life festivals in his first years in Tununak.
The Meaning of Festivals
By John Oscar, Artist
When winter was safe for travel, two or more villages gathered to celebrate with Ellarpiim Yua or Ellam Yua (Person of the great sky, heavens or universe). He was honored for all His gifts. Although they did not know His real name prior to missionaries, Jesus Christ provided for Alaska Native existence for thousands of years.
Participants prepared in advance, practicing songs and dance. Masks were carved representing animals of the land, sea and air. They did not believe in these masks as gods, but temporary imitations of animals, stories, humor and human events. The early missionaries misunderstood these as "…evil, a waste of time, and an unnecessary distribution of wealth” ” thus abolished their cultural celebrations.
The festival was the time of renewing and the rekindling of family and relatives. Past misdeeds, words and mistakes were also forgotten and relationships were cleansed. Families brought food, garments, hunting tools, utensils, household goods and useful material for clothing. The success of the year’s harvest was shared among the participants, widows, the elderly and the poor.
From the four corners of the Qas’giq (communal house), representing the lands and waters, rope sinew was attached to the middle that led to a doll representing Ellarpiim Yua. Carvings of animals and inflated animal bladders were strung on these ropes. In rhythm to the drum, each rope was pulled up and down. Some masks had holes in their outstretched hands. These were a symbol of Ellarpiim Yua having control of the resources. When man disputed or became greedy, He would close His hands. After all, the universe belonged to Him, and humans were merely borrowers.
After the festival, the animals were returned symbolically through these masks. Submerging them under the ice or burned for kindling. Sometimes children would use them for play. Sometimes a shaman would submerge them under the ice. Shamans were not seen as priests or leaders of the village, but ones who had the gift to heal and the ability to protect his community from other harmful beings or another shaman who became spiteful. Some were said to have the ability to move natural events, and in times of shortage, offer advice to where fish and animals were abundant or beseech for their availability.
After the celebration, the animals told Ellarpiim Yua, that they were treated well by the humans. They asked permission to return through hunting, fishing and gathering to celebrate at another festival. Ellarpiim Yua then being pleased of the love and respect humans showed for one another, gave the fish and wildlife permission to celebrate life with humans again.