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Some Dillingham homes will have soap-trimmed trees this Christmas

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Izzy Ross/KDLG
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Christmas trees are adorned with strings of lights, stars and… soap? This winter, a Dillingham high school art teacher wanted to help people carve decorations from an unusual material.

 

Walking into the gym, a faint perfume fills the air. Stacks of white bars of soap sit on a table, alongside wood and metal sculpting tools.

 

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Sculpting tools are laid out for Dillingham's art night. Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021.

The school’s art night is off to a slow start. It’s the last day of school before winter break in Dillingham. The community is in the throes of another blizzard, and classes were canceled. Still, art teacher Eric Prowker is resolute. 

 

“We are carving Yup’ik masks into bars of soap to replicate ivory,” he said. “ We are doing this as Christmas ornaments that you can hang on trees. They are light enough to hang on the tree branches and make a tree smell good.”

 

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Music teacher Jon Bell carves a bass clef into his ornament. Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021.

Soap brands each have a different consistency. Ivory – the soap, not the tusk – is soft, while Dove and Dial are harder. 

 

“I’m actually pretty happy with how it turned out,” Prowler said. “This was a Dial bar, so it was more of an hourglass shape. The imprint of the brand was fairly deep into the soap so I had to carve away more than I wanted to. The design is based after a Yup’ik dancer’s facial expression.”

 

In Yup’ik culture, some masks represent spirits, animals and natural forces. Traditionally, masks are used in ceremonial dances and as a form of storytelling or prayer – and often destroyed after the ceremony. 

 

As Westerners arrived in the late 19th century, people would trade masks for goods. Christian missionaries also suppressed masked dancing in many areas. Despite that, Indigenous people continued the tradition.  

 

Prowker said he wanted to help his students with a culturally relevant project. 

 

“When I think of soap, I think of ivory carvings,” he said. “And we kind of steered towards maybe some type of mask making design or an ivory carving. And that's kind of how the idea snowballed.”

 

 

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Bub Kurtz examines an ornament. Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021.

As we talked, a few people trickled in and sat down to carve, full of ideas, from salmon to butterflies. 

One of the attendees, Bub Kurtz, has carved before. 

“A little bit in ivory,” she said. “But this is really different. This is softer.

 

As for the class: 

 

“Wonderful,” Kurtz said. “Do it more often.” 

 

As people kept carving, some designs changed. 

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Correen Celestine holding her perfumed perfume bottle. Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021.

“I decided I was going to do a butterfly. Didn't quite work,” Correen Celestine said. 

 

Celestine, a substitute teacher from New Jersey, just finished a three-month stint in Dillingham. 

 

“Ended up making a dress that didn't work out either,” she said. “And now I decided to do a bottle of perfume and with the initial CC not for Coco Chanel, but for Coreen Celestine. But I had a fun time. It was nice being out." 

 

Yup’ik masks have many purposes; some are considered sacred. But you can carve other types of ornaments at home, too. Prowker said all you need is a bar of soap and a few tools.

 

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Eric Prowker holds one of his carvings. Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021.

“The wood tools carve pretty well,” he said. “They don't take up as much soap as some of the metal trimming tools that you get for pottery. So just having a variation of pottery tools for sculpting is a good idea.”

 

And of course, in art as in life, you don’t have to get things right the first time. 

 

“It's OK to teach kids that failing and a failed attempt are not the same thing,” he said. “Just because it didn't go right the first time doesn't mean you won't get it the second or the third time, you just figured out a way not to do it.”

 

The more you practice, he said, the better you’ll become. 

 

Contact the author at izzy@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.