Ever heard of musk oxen?

They’re more closely related to goats and sheep than to cattle (though larger) and they’re definitely an Arctic animal, with a luxurious underwool called qiviut under an outer shell of long hair. They have horns that make a helmet over the tops of their heads with wickedly forward-curved, sharp tips, and they’re a daunting sight head-on. Their defense against their traditional predators such as wolves was to gather in a circle, heads out, with the vulnerable calves in the center. However effective against wolves, such a defense was useless against human hunters, and musk oxen were close to extinction when restrictions on hunting, and transplantation, allowed them to bounce back.

Today musk oxen are being farmed for their qiviut, though it is probably going too far to call them domesticated. The best qiviut is allowed to loosen naturally and combed from the animal (with the aid of a holding chute!) and knit by village women—one of the few sources of cash income in remote Alaskan villages. It’s not overrated — I had a nachaq before the fire, and qiviut is an incredibly soft, warm, lightweight fiber.

The animals themselves have not gotten much attention in art – until recently. Our local PBS affiliate, which has a contest every winter for a poster design, had a semi-abstract muskox painting a couple of years ago. And this month there is an exhibit of musk oxen at the Bear Gallery in Fairbanks.

Have you heard of the Painted Ponies?

Lacie Stiewing decided that musk oxen would be just as good as horses for decorating. Better, in fact, and she designed a somewhat abstract musk ox form and decorated copies of the form with abandon. The result is a herd of musk oxen, a few shown here, in the Bear Gallery at Pioneer Park in Fairbanks, Alaska. It’s an exhibit to make you smile, even if small varieties of the critters are not available. Lacie, have you thought about that?

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