Two Sitkans were among 35 Alaskans selected last month for locals won Rasmuson Individual Artist project awards. John Ingman and Ellie Schmidt each received $7,500 for to advance their artistic work — which could not be more different. Ingman plays the Irish bagpipes and Ellie Schmidt is an interdisciplinary artist.
“I’m an artist as a catch-all phrase,” Schmidt said as she showed me around her studio at the Yaw Center. She works in this space most of the year. But she’s in the middle of packing up for the summer to make space for the fine arts camp.
Schmidt has been busy with an ongoing project these past few years: a small poetry book about her mother — and wolves. In 2015, she volunteered with the Yellowstone Wolf Project during the winter where she “just observed wolves.” At the same time, her my mom was preparing for knee surgery.
“In my head I had these two seemingly unrelated things happening of my mom’s declining health and these wolves that they’re desperately trying to keep healthy in Yellowstone.” The poetry book explores how those themes and experiences combine. “It’s going to take a kind of a funny format,” Schmidt said. “Right now I have these single lines paired with an image.” She has between 150 and 200 individual lines of poetry and will create an image to accompany each line.
The Rasmuson Foundation grant will allow Schmidt to complete the project and print the poetry books. That’s just one of her projects. She also paints, makes films, and takes photographs, and often works across media. The ocean and marine life have always been central to her work.
“Just basically I love the ocean,” she said. “It’s a very huge theme so I never feel like I get tired of it. She grew up in Colorado, but her family spent summers on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. There, she developed a deep affection for marine life.“ [The ocean] always maintained this mystical quality because it was just a summertime thing for me,” Schmidt said.
Alongside making art, she took ecology and marine biology classes in college. A Sitka Fellows Art Residency brought her to Alaska after graduation. Then, Schmidt started fishing to support herself. She spends her summers working on a gillnetter and the rest of the year working on art. She hopes to finish the book in the coming year. But for now, while the days are still long, it’s back to the docks.
“I’m kind of excited to hang up my artist hat for a little bit and just work and be outside,” she said. “for me it’s hard to come home from work and work on art so it’s nicer to have these chunks of time that are delegate to work or art.”
Find more of Schmidt’s work online at https://ellieschmidt.com/
Follow her @ellie.tes
John Ingman practices the Uilleann pipes for at least an hour every day. They require a bit of set-up.
“They call it strapping in,” Ingman said, with a laugh. He wiggles his right arm into a strap and tucks the bellows between his chest and his elbow. The bellows on Uilleann pipes is just like a bellows for a fire, Ingman explains.
Ingman pumps air into the bellows with his right arm. That fills the bag with air, which travels down to the chanter. The chanter has a double reed inside, like an oboe or a bassoon. The tube also has holes to control pitch. But that’s not all. A drone mechanism produces a steady, low tone. He plays chords with regulators — a series of keys.
“It gets very complicated very fast,” Ingman said. “It’s kind of like juggling when you get going.”
Complicated is right. It’s taken Ingman years to learn how all of this works. He first discovered the instrument while he was studying tuba at the University of Oregon. He taught himself through YouTube videos, instructional books, and lots of remote lessons. As far as he knows, he’s the only person in Sitka with a set of Uilleann pipes.
“When you hear it, you’ll know if you have the calling to play it or not,” he said. “The pipes called to me and it was like, okay, this is the instrument I need to be playing.”
It’s taken years to secure his own instrument. He started out playing on a borrowed set, then began to explore options for his own.
“They’re totally custom made,” Ingman said. He waited three years for a pipe maker in Minnesota to build the basic pieces. Then, it was another three years to make the regulators. All said and told, Ingman’s pipes cost between seven and eight thousand dollars. But the cost doesn’t bother him.
Still, Ingman has been hesitant to put his music out there. He grapples with doubt about whether or not he’s good enough to make recordings or videos.
“One of the things with this Rasmuson grant is like am I good enough to put stuff out there,” Ingman said. “And generally, I say no.”
Luckily, the Rasmuson Foundation team thinks otherwise. Ingman plans to use the grant from the Rasmuson Foundation for more lessons with a world-class piper, and to attend more conferences and gatherings. And maybe that will give him more confidence.
“That’s the thing, to get out of my comfort zone and play, and then maybe I’ll put tunes on YouTube.”
Ingman plays Irish sessions every Saturday at Beak Restaurant from 1-3pm.
A third Sitkan, Richard Nelson, won the Rasmuson Foundation’s 2019 Distinguished Artist Award. Read KCAW’s profile of him here.