An interview of Eugene Alfred

“When I was in grade 1 or 2, the teacher asked us what we wanted to be,” recalls Eugene Alfred. “I always said I wanted to go to art school. Everybody would laugh and say, ‘Nobody makes money on art’. I just brushed it off,” says Eugene. His ambition stayed with him. Right after high school, Eugene went to art school and has been an artist ever since.

It’s a hard job to be an artist, especially in the Yukon. There used to be a store that sold art by natives, but not anymore. “You’re alone, creating and selling your work,” he says. “Buyers don’t just show up at your door. I find myself looking buyers.” Despite the challenges, he recommends his profession to anyone who considers being an artist. “Everyday I get to work is a good day. I enjoy using all the skills I’ve learned over the years. I can’t complain,” he says.

Now Eugene is exhibiting at the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver, a leading contemporary art gallery with one of the world’s  biggest collections of native art. His work is shown beside that of artists Dempsey Bob and Ken Mowatt. These men were his teachers at the Kitannmax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art in Old Hazelton, British Columbia. It is the school Eugene applied to as a teenager, sending in samples of his artwork. He strongly recommends that anyone interested in a career as an artist receive formal instruction.

Eugene was fortunate to have excellent instruction. “I remember the first day I started, we made our tools. I didn’t even know how to hold a carving knife. The first step was learning how to hold your tool.” Eugene recalls that when he showed his drawings, his teacher drew all over it with a marker. “I’d cringe! I’d never had anyone do that before. My teacher said, ‘This is going to help you to learn, to take down some of the walls,’ and he was right.” Eugene’s teachers have remained his mentors throughout his career. “I still call my teachers, talk to them as fellow artists.”

So far, Eugene has travelled to Europe 5 times with his work. He was invited to Brienz, a small town in the Swiss Alps. “The whole town was full of carving, the doors and posts. After 20 years of being a carver, I knew I wasn’t alone,” he says. The exposure to other cultures and landscapes has made him appreciate his own heritage. Eugene explains, “You can fit 14 Switzerland’s in Yukon, yet has roughly 6 million people. I realize how lucky we are to have clean water and clean air. It’s taken me many years to appreciate how lucky we are – we still have potlatches and close ties to the land. I am proud of where I come from and who I am.”

In order to make a living as an artist, Eugene has also been a teacher for 18 years. In addition to workshops in public schools, he’s taught in Canadian prisons, northern Canada, and in European communities. He makes his own tools. He harvests and cures his own wood. He recommends holding other artists in high esteem and so you are always challenging yourself to do better. “Don’t be afraid – there will be ups and downs. Be confident, be willing to share,” he advises. “It’s about exploring who you are. Do more than you’re capable of.”