Janissa Johnson is one of 25 Alaskan artists recognized with a Project Award from the Rasmuson Foundation; she was recognized for her work in folk and traditional art. She said it’s an honor to be named among this year’s winners.
“It was completely unexpected,” said Johnson. “You apply for something and you know there’s a chance, but when it actually happens to you it’s extra exciting.”
Johnson is from the village of Larsen Bay – on the west side of Kodiak Island. She now spends part of the year in Anchorage. Johnson was recognized for her work with sea otter pelts; she started hunting otters about a decade ago during summers spent back in the village.
“I hunted them as a result of their population; there’s just an outrageous number of them in the Larsen Bay/Uyak Bay area,” said Johnson.
Federal law allows Alaska Native people who live in coastal areas of the state to harvest marine mammals – like sea otters – for subsistence purposes or making handicrafts.
Johnson is Alutiiq, and said she started hunting sea otters to protect other subsistence resources they were decimating, like mussels and clams, near Larsen Bay.
“It was never really my intent initially to start making stuff with the fur,” said Johnson. “But once I got back my first batch of tanned pelts, I realized there could be cool things made with them.”
Now she stitches together their fur, creating scarves and pillows and other custom items. She says she sells them to tourists who fly into Larsen Bay’s hunting and fishing lodges during the summer.
Johnson said art aside, she wants to encourage her 5-year-old son to continue the lifestyle and traditions of subsistence harvesting. He’s started joining her on hunting trips.
“It’s reactive harvesting,” said Johnson. “You see a lot of otters so you harvest more, if their population declines you harvest less. So, that just led me into the art.”
The Rasmuson Foundation award comes with $7,500 in prize money; Johnson says she’s already used the grant to purchase a more advanced sewing machine. She’s also planning on traveling to Southeast Alaska to shadow a master skin sewer.