Jerry Laktonen quit his job as an Alaskan fisherman to become a full-time artist, assuming the new career might be easier than a life of hard labor.
“It’s happened many, many times literally when I was totally out of money,” he said. “We’re talking looking in my washing machine for coins. We’re talking looking under the seats of my car.”
By some clear measures, Laktonen is a struggling artist. He lives in a modest home in Granite Falls, creating work on a cluttered kitchen table or the front porch, sometimes living from one sale to the next.
Seen in a different way, however, he is a huge success. Most of his pieces fetch $500 to $2,000, and sales have supported him for the past 13 years. Perhaps most impressive of all, two of his works, a mask and a set of paddles, are in the Smithsonian Institution’s collection.
He can blame his career, the good and the bad, on his heritage.
Laktonen, 57, grew up in Larsen Bay, Alaska, and said he has Alutiiq, Alieut, Athapaskan, Norwegian and Finnish heritage. His work mostly focuses on the Alutiiq ancestry. He makes masks and paddles decorated with feathers, fur and intricate acrylic designs of otters and fish.
“He’s made himself a student of tradition,” said Ann McMullen, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
He doesn’t limit himself to old ways, however.
“It would be really boring if all I did was replications, so I’ve kind of taken off,” he said, gesturing at a black bird mask on his wall. “This is my own design.”
His methods of creation also break with tradition. He uses a power sander and other modern tools, for instance. Traditionalists may fret, but without the tools, he could strain his arms or greatly lower his rate of production.
“I’d be out of business,” he said.
He has been close. Sometimes it seems like the universe toys with him, dangling out opportunity, yanking it away, then giving it back.
In August, he went as a dealer to the Sante Fe Indian Market in New Mexico. He stored a prize-winning piece in his car, only to have the entire vehicle stolen with the art in it, he said. Police weren’t optimistic. He had to take a Greyhound home.
Laktonen was upset, wondering how he would afford another car. He went online and, in his inbox, found an order worth $3,600. And two weeks later, the car was recovered.
“I’ve kind of learned to trust in miracles in a way,” he said.
Andy Rathbun, Herald Writer, email@example.com, 425-339-3455
See Laktonen’s work at www.whaledreams.com or call 360-691-7772 to order.