Visualizations of the North

by Catalina Myers  |   

Thomas Chung teaches Intermediate Painting at UAA
Tom Chung, assistant professor of art and painting in UAA's Department of Art was recently awarded first place in the staff category of University of the Arctic's inaugural photo competition. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Recently the University of the Arctic (UArctic) and its Arctic Sustainable Art and Design Thematic Network announced the inaugural winners of their first annual photo competition. Thomas Chung, assistant professor of art and painting in UAA’s Department of Art, was awarded first place in the staff category for his three-part photo series titled, Arctic Sea Ice, Under the Glacier and Whale. 

UArctic is a network of colleges, universities, research institutes and organizations dedicated to providing education to Northern communities and their constituents across the globe so they can collectively share their knowledge and develop resources to enhance life and living in the North. 

This year’s theme of Arctic Polarities explored the contrasts and contradictions of modern life in the North and asked participants to present positive contemporary visualizations that embrace inclusivity and challenge stereotypes of the North and Arctic. 

We caught up with Chung on his inspiration and overall approach to art and discussed his recent award-winning photos.


Tell me a little bit about your process for creating art. What influences you to create?

Every artist makes work for a different reason and function. My art can be thought of as a meditation or prayer more than decoration. Most of my work is unplanned, or at the very least involves chance, the subconscious and balancing chaos. I tell my students often that I believe the strongest artwork is the most honest. I make art about what I care about. I care about what it means to be a human being. I care about the function and solution to racism and cruelty. I am passionate about decolonization and the elevation of nonwestern people and worldviews. I hope my art will contribute to the transformation of ignorance into wisdom for humanity. These interests motivate my artwork. 


What inspired your photo series and where were they taken?

The photo with the whale was taken in Anchorage at Kincaid Park. A few years ago a dead beached whale was there. The second image was taken under Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau before it collapsed. The third was taken at the village of Wainwright on the North Slope of Alaska. 

The photos are documentation of my adventures. Everywhere else I have lived I am confident I know what to expect. My favorite thing about Alaska is that it is always surprising me — shocking actually. The three photos are of moments when Alaska shocked me with experiences I never dreamed possible. 

In the photo at Wainwright, that morning I awoke to piles of ice littering the beaches and land masses of ice covering the ocean. I had been there for three days next to an empty and peaceful sea. I didn't even know the ocean could freeze. The competition was about contrasts, polar opposites, and Alaskan extremes fit the theme well. 


What drew you to Alaska and what about the North sparks your creativity?

I grew up in the extreme minority as an Asian person in a nearly all-white town in New Jersey. My experiences socially were difficult, but the local nature was glorious. Swarms of fireflies, snapping turtles larger than garbage can lids and millions of cicadas commonly surrounded me. 

In many ways, I believe that my time in Alaska has helped me reconnect with nature and my heritage after being disconnected from both for the majority of my life. My family abandoned almost all of our cultural heritage as a consequence of war and assimilation to succeed in white America. 

When I finished graduate school at Yale I applied to teach at a few universities across the U.S. The prospect of adventure, proximity to Alaska Native culture and nature made UAA my top choice. I hate living in big cities and was thrilled when I was offered the job. Learning about decolonization from Alaska Native Elders has given me a worldview and a vocabulary to heal my own trauma. 

I am inspired by the emphasis in Alaska on elevating nonwestern people and worldviews. Indigenous knowledge is needed now more than ever and I have found much healing and inspiration here. I feel lucky to live in a place with such a large indigenous population and opportunities to learn indigenous wisdom. These interests enter my art because my art is a mirror to my life and mind.


What do you hope your photos in the UArctic photo competition will convey to Alaskans and others who view them?

I hope that I can share how mystical and profound it is to be a human being on this planet. The older I get, the less I take for granted the miracle that I and this planet exist at all. As I get older I am growing out of the worldview that nothing exists beyond what science can prove to us. I hope these images lead viewers toward the awe of existence.

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