Florence Nupok was born in 1906 (some sources claim 1905) in the village of Gambell, on Saint Lawrence Island. She began drawing when she was eight years old, using whatever paper was available, including labels from tin cans. In 1926, she married Chauncy Malewotkuk.
In 1927-28, Otto William Geist was conducting archaeological excavations on Saint Lawrence Island. He commissioned from Florence a series of drawings that depicted traditional lifeways. Geist collected the drawings for Charles B. Bunnell, President of the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines (now the University of Alaska). Eventually, Florence completed more than ninety drawings for Geist. Collectively, they depict daily life scenes during the first quarter of the 20th Century among the Siberian Yupik Eskimo, including figure studies, fur clothing, and women's tattoo markings. The entire collection is now housed in the Archives of the Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Photographic images of the drawings are housed at the Smithsonian Institution.
Ink on bleached seal skin
34.0 x 29.5 cm
Florence and her husband never had children of their own, but they soon adopted a son, Woodrow. After completing the series of drawings for Geist, Florence apparently put her drawings aside and concentrated on homemaking. Occasionally she would make a small drawing and trade it for supplies, but her output was extremely limited for many years.
In 1955, Kay Roberts, an artist from Anchorage, commissioned Florence to do a series of drawings that were later reproduced and sold under the copyrighted name, "Bering Sea Originals." Except for the purchase price of the original drawings, this venture brought the artist little or no additional income. It did, however, earn her some notoriety and wider distribution of her artwork. Despite increased public interest, however, Florence apparently turned her attention toward other interests. During the next few years, she again produced relatively few drawings.
ca. late 1960s
43.0 x 29.0 cm
Then in 1964, she was among 32 Eskimo (and the only woman) accepted into the Designer-Craftsman Training Project (funded by the Manpower Development Training Act), which instructed artists how to use new equipment, materials, and designs in adapting their work for new markets. Upon completing the training program in 1965, Florence's media included ink, pencil, crayon, and watercolors.
Besides drawing on paper, Florence also executed exquisite drawings on seal and walrus skins. Her walrus studies recall earlier engravers' portrayals of walrus on bow drills and trade pipes. Her preference for realism is evidenced by her superb draftsmanship, and her style earned her the title "Grandma Moses of the Bering Sea." Saradell Ard Frederick observed in The Alaska Journal, "Perhaps because carving and engraving have long been considered the province of males, only one woman, Florence Nupok Malewotkuk has displayed exceptional ability in drawing."
ca. late 1960s
43.0 x 29.0 cm
After 1965, Florence's work took on commercial appeal, appearing on Christmas cards, note paper, and plastic place mats, coasters, and cups. Some of these were again marketed under the trade name, "Bering Sea Originals."
ca. late 1960s
8.0 x 8.0 cm
CAS 2000-0006-0005 B-G
In addition to the single original drawing at the California Academy of Sciences and those at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, Florence Nupok Malewotkuk is also represented in the collections of the Philbrook Art Center, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. The University of Alaska Library Archives in Fairbanks also has extensive interviews and correspondence from the artist.
Florence Nupok Malewotkuk died in 1971 following a lengthy illness. That same year, the first ever major retrospective exhibit of her work was shown at the University of Alaska.
Florence Malewotkuk Reading List
Archuleta, Margaret and Rennard Strickland
Shared Visions: Native American Painters and Sculptors in the Twentieth Century. New York: The New Press, 1991.
Frederick, Saradell Ard
"Alaskan Eskimo Art Today." The Alaska Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4, 1972, pp. 30-41.
Geist, Otto William and Fröelich G. Rainey
"Archaeological Excavations at Kukulik." Miscellaneous Publications of the University of Alaska, 2. Washington, D.C.: U. S. Dept. of the Interior, 1936.
"Florence Malewotuk [sic], Eskimo Artist." Alaskafest, May 1982, pp. 34-36, 38, 41.
"Florence Lives." Alaska Magazine, Vol. 39, No. 10, pp. 20-21, 59-61.
"The Artist Napaaq, 1906-1971." Eskimo Drawings. Suzi Jones, ed. Anchorage: Anchorage Museum of History and Art, 2003, pp. 137-154.
Painting in the North: Alaskan Art in the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. Anchorage: Anchorage Museum of History and Art, distributed by the University of Washington Press, 1993.