Ryan Romer tells visual stories of where the modern world collides with traditional culture in the Alaskan bush

Ryan Romer considers himself a “late bloomer” as an artist, not having delved into the professional art world until he was already in his 30s. Prior to that, he was “one of those artists who would just work at home and never show people.” After earning a BFA in printmaking at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, the local arts scene blossomed and he found himself participating in several art shows with other local artists, whom he would then work together with in collectives.

Romer is originally from Bethel, Alaska, a small city 400 miles west of Anchorage where the major culture is Yupik. Romer, part Yupik himself and part Athabaskan Indian himself (what he calls a “mixed bag of two cultures”), moved to Anchorage as a young adult and had lived there for 12 years before pursuing his path as an artist.

“The combination of growing up in Bethel in Yupik culture and then coming to the city and being there for 12 years brought an awareness that being an artist allowed me to be many different people at the same time,” he says. As an artist, he could draw on these somewhat opposing aspects of his identity: the Native Yupik, and the city dweller. “The realization came that not only can I make art, but I can make an impact in my culture as well.”

Ryan Romer.

Romer’s work is informed by his Yupik culture and growing up in a more remote part of the country, and his experience of how that rural indigenous culture is impacted by, and in some way collides with, modern American society. Works of his appear in traveling shows like the current exhibition Decolonizing Alaska, addressing concerns about climate change and cultural survival resulting from colonization.

He has two major projects he is currently focused on, both of which examine the experience of modern life from the indigenous perspective. Romer finds himself constantly fascinated by the way the modern lifestyle has found its way into indigenous culture.

“I’ve shifted to making images that correlate with what is going in on modern Alaska, especially among indigenous people because indigenous people in Alaska are waking up,” he says. “People from the lower 48 don’t realize Natives are getting a lot of input now because of the Internet and access to cell phones. In bush villages where people still hunt for their food, now they hunt for their food with cell phones in hand.

‘Because we’re the last stronghold of people still living in their culture, to me the advent of technology has put a certain twist on our society that seems abnormal to me. These are people living nomadically but everyone has a cellphone. So are these people poor, living off the dirt? But they can’t be because they have a $1,000 cell phone in their hand. They’re living two lives at once: the Western lifestyle and the indigenous lifestyle. I’m working on what it is to see that and share that with people who have never been to Alaska or to the bush, showing what my culture is and how it is affected by outside culture, and also how it impacts urban culture.”

He repeats that Alaskan Native culture is markedly different from that of the Natives in the lower 48.

“Meeting of the Minds,” by Ryan Romer.

“Indigenous people of Alaska have not been downtrodden like in the lower 48,” he explains. “Up here people still live their cultures. My brother still goes out and hunts every day to eat. To me that is always a source of fascination, living those parallel lives at one time. As I’m here talking on a phone from urban Anchorage, at this exact same time I know my brother is hunting for the day from his small village. I could call him right now and he’d probably answer even though he’s way out in the middle of nowhere, he’ll be whispering, ‘What’s up, I’m in a bird blind, can I call you back later?'”

‘To me that’s always been strange. Here I am, making a Western living, and there he is, making a cultural living, at the exact same moment. To give that moment and that thought itself some significance is what I enjoy as an artist.”

And it’s not just the jarring juxtaposition of the advent of technology and the way it has been adopted in indigenous cultures; the ills of modern society are also impacting the bush in ways they haven’t before.

“Rising to the East,” by Ryan Romer.

The first of Romer’s upcoming projects will take him out into the Alaskan bush and its hub cities, including his hometown of Bethel, to make a series of documentary films and an accompanying photo series on homelessness in the bush.

“Homelessness in big cities is always a problem, but Anchorage has had a big spike in last four to five years,” he says. In fact, there are an estimated 3,000-4,000 people in Anchorage without permanent housing, and the state of Alaska itself has some of the highest per capita rates of homelessness and alcoholism in the country. The homeless are also disproportionately Native, who comprise 20 percent of the population and yet 50 percent of the clients in shelters.

The high homeless rates also impact the bush and cities like Bethel and other hub towns that serve as the epicenter of other smaller villages that surround them.

“The homeless population in Bethel has expanded to such a degree that they’re everywhere,” says Romer. “In a town of 6,000 people, even to have 100 homeless people walking around, you see them on every street corner.”

In the bush, some people still lead a nomadic lifestyle. With this project, one of the questions Romer will examine is what makes these people, who often come from small villages and semi-nomadic tribes, “homeless.”

“Because they are nomadic, the definition of ‘homeless’ is different there,” he says. “To them they’re not homeless if they have 20 relatives they can go couch surf with. The dynamics are different. The definition is different. I want to bring awareness of this to people.”

He plans on visiting the bush this month before winter comes to gather some film and still images to begin working with to create the first film in the series that will then be an ongoing project. He’ll then travel back to the bush in December, when everything is frozen over and travel by snowmobile is actually easier, to continue working on the homelessness project. “I like to call that a ‘bush safari!'” he jokes.

“Lone Traveler,” by Ryan Romer.

The other major project Romer is currently working on also views indigenous culture through a modern lens. For this he will take the folklore stories he grew up with in rural Alaska and re-tell them, mixing in modern elements and creating his own accompanying illustrations to release as a book.

“These are the stories people tell from generation to generation to bring awareness to the environment, social status within the hunter-gatherer group, [and other elements of indigenous social life that people were taught through these stories]. These stories were told to keep people on track and out of harm, which can be used in the city as well as out in the wild.”

The book of short stories is rooted in these folklore tales, but will be told through modern parallels, focusing on modern-day people with cell phones who travel out to the bush and come across mysterious small people who live out in the tundra.

“Ever Since She Married Him She Moved into His House,” by Ryan Romer.

“The problems that come with a growing village are also benefits at the same time. The old and the new are colliding, causing this cultural ripple or rift, where you have elders that are 70 years old using cell phones. [Our culture is] at a crossroads of listening to those elders teach this generation our traditional ways and beliefs but at the same time using that technology themselves to see the world. I guess I’m in this gray area of how I think that will affect the future, [and how we consider] what [technology] can be used and how it should be used.”

With both the film and the folklore projects, Romer is ultimately trying to determine how to show these things in a film or a photo or an illustration that will “bring awareness to what we can do as a people culturally to manifest some kind of direction to take our culture to defeat the nemesis of homelessness and drug use, to use the last of the folklore stories that were told for survival for our own future survival awareness.”

His goal as an artist is to bring awareness to various issues impacting his Native cultures and his Alaskan society. Alaska is at the forefront of many national and global issues right now – oil and climate change among them – and he strives to make images that bring awareness to these macro-level issues as well as the micro-level of how these modern issues impact the comparatively very small number of surviving bush cultures.

“Being an artist allows me to be a person in the community who has a voice people want to hear and they want to see what my art world is all about because it’s done to bring awareness, whether through abstract drawings or wood carvings,” Romer says. “I started telling people I was an artist and that I am here for the better of society and to bring awareness to issues other people don’t talk about, and that’s why we as artists should be respected.”

(1) How do you like to collaborate?
I like doing collaborations. That’s how I met a lot of local artists here in Anchorage and elsewhere: I was part of a couple of collectives right off the get-go in the professional art world. I like collaborations and working with others; it allows you to understand the social aspects of how other artists think and that’s the interesting part of human personality that I enjoy. It allows me to evaluate what I’m working on and how I present myself to other people. It’s a good self-reflection tool and I recommend to other artists to do it in their lifetimes – to work with other artists. It’s a great teaching tool

(2) How do you a start a project?
I write down what I’m thinking about. There’s usually a bunch of stuff I’m working on daily, then usually by the fourth or fifth day into it I will start to see where my general flow has been going and I take that and use it as a walking guide of how I want to collect my images. I will take the words I’ve written down and the photos I’ve been taking and put those together like a collage, then use that to see where my subconscious and written intentions go together. That’s how a lot of my past projects started. Being an artist and being self-aware means I’m always trying to see the how and where – where my ideas come from and how I utilize them. I will stack them up then read through them and think, “Ok, I’m thinking a lot about ‘X'” and try to put them together into the process I had been working on.

(3) How do you talk about your value?
Human value is some of the verbiage I like to use when describing myself or other artists. It’s the human value. We need to put the artist back as a person of value in our culture, in any culture. To outwardly tell people I’m an artist is to bring awareness back to the definition of what an artist is: a person in society who brings awareness to what we’re doing in society. We need to immediately recognize that person has a human value. An artist should be valued as much as a doctor. We bring value to what people do not see because they’re too busy looking forward. An artist to me brings back perspective to society, so artists should be listened to and taken seriously for what they’re doing.

It is coming back in Anchorage, the idea that the artist is a great person of value, but it’s still not part of the common thinking. If you say you’re an artist people think you’re a late morning riser and all that. I don’t like that, that’s not the true factor of why artists are artists. Within my Native culture you’re an important person in society if you’re an artist. People in society don’t realize artists and creative people built the world around them. An artist is a very important person in our society and should be taken seriously. They are of great human value that should be rewarded somehow or given due diligence of equal placement among other professions.

(4) How do you define success?
I recently did a show down in Homer. I had done a couple of shows, one in Anchorage and one down there, and had a small audience of people who came through and saw the work, so I was feeling kind of like I wasn’t making the impact I wanted with stuff I was showing. But then I got a phone call from a woman who had seen my work at both exhibitions as she was traveling. In her words, she said she wanted to know more of why I was doing this style of artwork. She compared my images with work she was seeing stateside in abstract artists, and used names like Picasso and Dali. She wanted to know what kind of lifestyle I was living to inspire that kind of imagery. That made me happy – the fact that the social structure of my life is what brings that about. What I’m doing causes people to want to locate me. They send me emails to find out about my life and how I do that work.

That’s my gratification. It’s always later, after the fact, that I get feedback. But getting emails gives me the feeling that I’m doing the right thing and I’m on the right track, that a stranger from somewhere else in the world wants to know what my lifestyle is to think what I think and do what I’m doing. That keeps me going on in the long run, to keep doing and sharing my work, even if it’s hard to define or put direction on where I’m going there are always some people who want to communicate with me and that’s always where I have my best conversations. Those little conversations lead to lifelong friendships and collaborations with other artists, and if I never shared my artwork I never would have met these people. To me I’m just an Alaskan artist. I’ve never shown stateside, though that’s one of my goals, so for someone to see my stuff and reach out to me keeps me going.

And I thank technology for that, and I’m happy people are actually taking the time to seek me out through technology when they otherwise would not have been able to find me. I thank technology for that and myself for that in being able to make my storyline understandable for people.

(5) How do you fund your work?
My work is self-funded. The majority of my exhibitions and shows have been self-funded and through private sales. I have yet to get a grant to do a show or be on a panel or anything, actually. I have applied; I just haven’t received one. I hear it’s the greatest thing ever to get a grant! I do apply for some grants but I do find it easier to plan exhibitions and shows being self-funded and through patrons supporting my work.