By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015
Peter Williams (Yup’ik) produces high-end fur garments that blur the line between art and fashion. He has demonstrated the technique of sewing seal and sea otter fur by hand at museums, cultural centers, and to Alaska Natives at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In 2015, he presented at New York Fashion Week and was profiled in The Guardian. His first runway show was at Brooklyn Fashion Week, 2016.
Peter completed a Rasmuson Foundation Artist Residency at Santa Fe Art Institute, an Artist in Residence at the Institute of American Indian Arts and has guest lectured at Yale University, Portland Art Museum, and 516 ARTS. He is based in Sitka, Alaska.
Known as the “sea otter guy,” it’s hard to tell at times where Peter’s art ends and he begins.
“The deeply holistic nature of my culture not only informs my art but is the reason I create it,” Peter said.
From Alaska to New York, bridging two states at the opposite ends of the country has allowed Peter to grow connections between disparate cultures. This came from walking pathways in deep healing and his role as a Yup’ik man.
When Peter lost his father in an alcohol-related boating accident, it broke his connection with his cultural identity.
“What it meant to be a healthy Yup’ik man wasn’t modeled for me,” Peter said.
This spiraled into substance abuse and self-loathing that nearly destroyed him. Coming back to the traditional practices of sea otter hunting, sewing skins, and oneness, Peter experienced healing.
“My father, my culture, my spirituality, sobriety, and healing all became tangible through the sacred act of hunting and sewing with marine mammals,” he said.
Stretching this identity across the country, he began cold-calling fur and fashion businesses on the East Coast.
“High-end, high dollar products will allow me to hunt and create less,” he said. “I can get to a comfortable living wage while making and selling unique, high-quality products.”
Peter is now taking the next steps. Consulting with a potential sales representative, he’s pursuing wholesale outlets in New York. He was recently accepted into the Capsule fashion trade show as part of his goals with his First Peoples Fund Artist in Business Leadership program to expand into new markets.
Peter’s art goes beyond crafting a quality product. It tells a story, a narrative of who he is, who his people are, and how they have evolved with their culture intact, thriving, and ready for the future.
Photo credits: Runway images provided by the artist, header image and outdoor modeling images from Gregory Thompson and Max Myers, images of Peter Williams hunting/fishing by Fabio Domenig.