Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

John Hoover

By Jennifer C. Vigil

Aleut artist John Jay Hoover was born October 13, 1919 in Cordova, Alaska to Annie Serakovikoff (Aleut) and Jay Hoover (Dutch). He left Cordova in 1952, first for Edmond and then ultimately to Grapeview, Washington, where he currently resides. He attended the Leon Derbyshire School of Fine Arts in Seattle from 1957 to 1960. Although known for his sculpture, Hoover began his career as a painter. Paintings from the late 1950s and early 1960s included scenes from his life in Alaska (Mt. Eccles, Cordova, Alaska, 1950) as well as landscapes, seascapes (Putting Out the Lead, 1960) and images of his life in Washington. In the 1970s, Hoover received a National  Endowment for the Arts grant that supported him while he worked as an artist-in-residence at the Institute of American Indian Arts where he studied with Allan Houser.

Hoover’s early oil-painted wood sculptures, such as Spirit Board (1970), were inspired by traditional Coast Salish spirit boards on display at the Washington State Museum in Tacoma.[1] He favored the easily carved cedar because of its significance to Northwest Coast people. Hoover transitioned from single-paneled spirit boards to hinged triptychs (Polar Bear Spirit, 1971) reminiscent of Russian Orthodox icons[2] (which folded up to protect the image inside during travel) and Northwest Coast transformation masks. The side panels, carved on both sides and half the width of the center, when closed revealed a different image than the interior. In the 1970s, he began to experiment using different shapes with his folding diptychs and triptychs, creating sculptures that when closed resemble one form and transform into another when opened (Seal People, 1975). This change aligned his work more closely with transformation masks than with Russian Orthodox icons. In later works, Hoover moved to kinetic sculpture that hung and moved with air currents and larger freestanding pieces that were sometimes cast in bronze.

Transformation is an important leitmotif in Northwest Coast and Inuit oral traditions that is creatively adopted by Hoover. An artist statement he authored notes, “[His] work is a blend of shamanism, sea birds, and animals creating a modern myth based on [his] heritage. Shamans were healers, artists and sometimes chiefs…shamans could transform into the shape of their spirit helpers.” [3] In Blind Man and the Loon (1980), the carved form of the loon opens to reveal two loons with two figures. This piece relates the traditional Northwest Coast story with the same name to Hoover’s use of shamanistic transformation aided by spirit helpers.

Birds are a recurrent subject in Hoover’s work, with the loon being the most prevalent. The loon is a prominent figure in oral traditions of the Inuit, Aleut and Northwest Coast people because it travels between three worlds: the middle world (land) where humans reside; and the upper (air) and under (water) worlds, both locales inhabited by spirits. Hoover’s work gives us insight into the supernatural world of the Northwest Coast. His creative use of materials reveals the spirits contained within, and in doing so transforms a legacy of cultural devastation among the Aleut into one of cultural renewal and pride.

[1]Julie Decker, John Hoover: Art and Life (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), 28.

[2]Because of the proximity to Russia, Alaska and the Northwest Coast have historically had many Russian settlers and missionaries.  Even today there are numerous Orthodox churches and Russian Orthodox missionaries working in those regions.

[3]John Hoover, artist statement, Stonington Gallery, 1986.