When you walk into the new hospital building that the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation built in Bethel, the first thing you’ll see is art that depicts the Yup’ik way of life. One of those pieces of art covers one wall just above a line of chairs in one of YKHC’s waiting areas.
"It’s called Atauciugukut, which means 'all as one.' It’s 11 feet long and 4 feet high," said artist Astaq John Oscar.
Oscar painted a scene that carries all the variations of landscapes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. There’s the flat tundra, with dancers Yuraq or dancing in the traditional Yup’ik way. Behind them are hills, inspired by those on Nelson Island where Oscar's home of Tununak is located. The Yukon River and Kuskokwim River weave out to meet in front, with the delta in between them. Some of the dancers wear small wooden masks; Oscar says that he crafted the eyes a special way.
"If you move to one angle, they’ll still be looking at you the same time," Oscar said.
And one number ties it all together: the number three.
"Three birds, three men, three seals, three fish, three caribou, three moose, three ptarmigan. It references our creator, Ellam Yua. Ellarpiim Yua. He created everything we’re in right now," Oscar said.
It also shows the three elements: the land, the water, and the air, which are crucial to life in the Y-K Delta.
"And whatever we do to anything of it, to those three, will affect the rest," Oscar said.
Oscar remembers these lessons from the Elders in Tununak. He says that the community building was a traditional sod house, and he remembers watching people yuraq, or dance, in it. From those memories grew his interest in art at age 11. Oscar later attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he studied art under Ron Senungetuk, who helped establish the Native Art Center at UAF.
John Oscar has made his art for decades, and it wasn’t always easy to keep it up in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. He says that he’s had to work office jobs to pay the bills.
"I’ve always done artwork on the side," Oscar said.
But as he’s gotten older, he has begun turning to art full-time. His daughter, Caroline, is his apprentice, who helped with the painting at YKHC. Oscar says that the art field is very competitive, but he has some advice for aspiring Alaska Native artists.
"My Elders used to say, 'Uitauralria camek unangengaituq. One who idles gains nothing.' Get up. Put down that cell phone and get to work," Oscar said.
He says that the Yup’ik values that he portrays in his work have allowed him to sustain his art career.