Inupiaq Eskimo artist Ken Lisbourne remembered for telling stories of subsistence
Late artist Ken Lisbourne is well known in the world of Alaska art. His paintings depict a way of life quickly fading — that of the traditional subsistence lifestyle of Inupiaq Eskimos in the Arctic. Lisbourne spent his childhood in the Arctic, and according to his sister Bea Ferguson, a resident of Kotzebue, "His art tells a whole lot of stories of how we grew up."
Lisbourne was born on Oct. 21, 1950, the fourth of what would eventually become a family of 16. As a teenager, he left his home in Point Hope to hone his watercolor skills at a school in Albuquerque, N.M. After returning to Alaska, he moved with his large family to Fairbanks in the 1970s after his father secured a job in Prudhoe Bay during the oil industry boom.
Lisbourne was conscientious and kind, "never said anything bad to anybody," Ferguson remembers. Lisbourne took after his father, a good who man his sister says eschewed alcohol and drugs, instead preferring to live a true subsistence lifestyle.
For a while, Lisbourne also worked in the oil industry at Prudhoe Bay, but his talent and passion for art won out in the end, and he and his wife, also an artist, were able to make a living largely from their art.
Even though most of Lisbourne's adult life was spent away from his childhood home, he kept painting scenes from the Arctic. When asked if Lisbourne missed the Arctic, Don Ferguson, Jr., his brother-in-law, surmised, "I don't know if he missed the Arctic, but he painted what he knew. He painted memories, and shared a bit of himself."
"In his art, I see how we grew up at the camp," Bea Ferguson said. "Ken loved the camp. Every time we went home, we'd be together at the camp. That's where we had our peace and memories."
Ken's artwork graces the walls of public and private buildings across Alaska including in Kotzebue at the Maniilaq hospital, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation building in Barrow, and in Fairbanks.
Lisbourne died on June 14, 2017, of pancreatic cancer. His surviving sister now smiles as she recalls his memorial service in Anchorage. The reception was held at the Anchorage Museum, and Ferguson met admirers of her brother from all over the country.
"He often traveled outside Alaska to sell his art," she said. "New York knew him very well."
Lisbourne also served on the board of the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics.
"He always gave Miss Alaska a print every year, never missed," Ferguson said.
When asked how she thought her brother and his art would be remembered, Ferguson said people will remember him for living his culture, for keeping it going.
"His art speaks our culture, Inupiaq," she said. "His Inupiaq name was 'Ooyahtoona,' and he was an Inupiaq Eskimo artist. I am proud of him."