Ivory carving is more than a hobby for young Yup’ik

Casey Cikigaq Balluta of Toksook Bay sits at his work station in his shop where he carves ivory into works of art. He says he enjoys working with ivory and was taught by his late grandfather, Phillip Moses.

by G. Lincoln

Casey Balluta, age 26, is a young ivory carver who became interested in working with tools when he was a boy, learning from his grandfather Phillip Moses. His name in Yugtun is Cikigaq. He comes from a long line of talented Yup’ik artists. We visited him last week to talk about his carving.

What is your name and tell us about what you do.

My name is Casey Balluta and I am from Toksook Bay and I like to carve earrings, rings. I like to carve. Right now I am working on the bottom earrings, the beads, they’re the dangly parts. Just those for now and I’ll do the hooks later. It takes me like an hour to get those done.

I got a pair of these done yesterday. I carved these and then my mom inks them. That’s how we get them done. They are made out of walrus tusks. They are pretty nice. There’s beads and India ink. It takes about 3 hours to make from start to finish.

How long have you had this shop?

It’s been a while. 10 years, 9 years I’ve had this shop.

Can you show me how you take orders?

When people make orders, I would always say I’ll take a picture of the package and I’ll send a check number to you. I started collecting them (order slips) two years ago. This is a lot right here. I get a lot of orders. People would message me, like do you have earrings for sale, do you have anything on hand? Yes I do, no I don’t but I can carve a pair for you. They would show me what kind of earrings they want and I would carve them. Custom made earrings. They message me on facebook messenger.

Where are your orders coming from?

All around Bethel area, all around Alaska. Sometimes downstates.

Do you have any walrus tusks?

I just bought some recently, like two weeks ago. I would cut them off first. I fix the hooks, when they break. The hooks break off, I’d fix them. Like repair, it is pretty nice.

Can you show me the tools you use?

I use a Dremel. This is called a flexer and these are the bits. I don’t know what they’re called but these are what I use. These are for sanding. I like to use these for thinning them out, getting them smooth. After that I would use sandpaper. This is fine, superfine, microfine, and ultrafine. Smoother and smoother and smoother, nice and shiny. I would finish them off with polish. This is where I get it nice and shiny. Each step is smoother and more shiny.

I saw this (Dremel) on Amazon and it was pretty cool. So I bought this. It was much more easier, lighter and smaller. I can move my fingers. I have to go up and down to try get them straight, carve. So it is pretty fun, pretty asqi.

For people watching how would they get in touch with you to order?

I have FB, you can add me. It’s Casey Balluta. I have two accounts, ones old and ones new, just look for the newest one. I would ask you what kind of earrings do you want, or they would ask me what kind of earrings do you have or do you have any pictures that I can look through and if I see something I’m interested can you make this, and yes I can carve it.

Do you have everything on fb, all your pictures?

Yes, I do. I post them when I am done or if I have a couple earrings then I would show them like post them. And they would be very very interested and they would go out fast.

Do you do this full time?

Oh yeah, I carve like every day or when I am lazy I’ll take a break from carving for a couple days or a week. It is tiring but it is a lot of fun.

Burnouts, when do you need to take a break?

My lungs would sometimes hurt when I breathe in. I would take breaks when that happens.

What time do you start carving?

Afternoon. Sometimes it would take me all day. I usually carve after I eat. I carve from 1 to 6, eat. Then from 6 to like 8 or 9. It would take me all day to carve.

Who inspired you to carve?

My grandfather Phillip Moses. I was very young, maybe 8 or 9. He was carving wood – little kayaks, mud houses, and boats with sails. And making yuguaqs (little figures of people). I would watch him carve and he’d tell me, do you want to carve but in Yup’ik. I would just like start carving and he would teach me how. Wow man this is pretty fun. I was growing up. Then he passed away.

He told me before he passed away, this is my shop he told me you can keep everything that you need. He would tell me, caliaqluten caarkailkuvet. Make something if you’re bored. And then when I turned 21 I started carving ivory. I told my mom, can you get me a Dremel. Yes. She got me a Dremel.

I found a tusk inside one of the toolboxes and I started cutting. These are one of my first ones right here, the uluaqs. The very first ones were yaaruin, storyknives. I made those for my mom, she still has them, she wears them. Before I didn’t know how to, I was a beginner. I started out by making holes and tying them with a string to a regular earring.

A couple years later I was carving earrings, not ivory hooks, first for like two years. People keep asking me, you should make ivory hooks. I don’t know about that, I don’t know how. So couple years later, 2-3 years later I started making ivory hooks. I was trying to sell them out at NYC store, at the old NYC. They weren’t selling out pretty quick. Years passed by like 2 years and I started getting better and better. A lot of people started getting interested in them.

Did you sell those?

Just like a couple.

Who’s your puppy?

Dog is Anjo. It’s my sister’s puppy but I am taking care of her for now.