When an art teacher told a class of students that only one of them would be a practicing artist in 20 years, Sonya Kelliher-Combs accepted his statement as a challenge.
“I thought to myself, that’s going to be me.”
In a twist of irony, when Kelliher-Combs, who creates art with found items, acrylic polymer, hair, and animal skin, was honored by Alaska’s Gov. Sean Parnell last year as one of five recipients of the Arts and Humanities award, the gift she received was a painting by the same professor who had challenged her in the late 1980s.
Her latest accolade, a $20,000 “2010 Artistic Innovation: Through the Soul of an Artist” grant awarded by the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation, calls for her to return to her Alma Mater and work with art students during a two-day workshop to create pieces for an upcoming exhibition at a non-profit gallery this summer.
Like her eclectic use of materials for her mixed media paintings and sculptures, her ancestry is a tapestry woven of Inupiaq, Athabaskan, German and Irish backgrounds. “It’s not just about any one particular culture, as I come from a variety of cultures,” she said. “It’s a mixing and melding of these different places that I come from.”
Kelliher-Combs describes her pieces as arrangements of lines and shadows; she creates lines by attaching hair or found objects to a translucent material such as synthetic or real skin. Then, once properly illuminated, shadows naturally appear.
The kuspuk, an Alaska Native summer garment, has been a recurring motif for her—over the years, she has used it in about 20 paintings. The first was dedicated her aunt, who was brutally murdered. “It became about more than just a single person, but in memory of all of those that we have lost in tragic ways,” she says.
For these works, she submerges the kuspuk into a gel medium, an acrylic medium added to acrylic paint. After the gel dries she peels it off; the resulting effect is that of an artifact discovered in an archaeological dig.
Most of the found materials, including the kuspuks, are donated to her by friends who purchase them at yard sales. She feels that knowing nothing about the history of the person who wore the garment adds to each piece’s mystique. In fact, she says that “it’s important that we don’t know this person, or we don’t know what their life was like.”
While the organic materials she uses are indigenous to her culture, celebrating the rich heritage and customs of Alaska Native people, a great deal of her creations tie in directly to social issues her people face on a daily basis. For one museum installation, she lined up parkas on a rack and pinned tribal identifications cards (complete with the blood quantum) to each of them; on another occasion, she presented shoes and Native crafts with boxes underneath each item. In both installations, she says, her intention was to represent the commoditization of her people and culture.
A darker piece, the ceiling installation “Idiot Strings,” features pouches made of gut and hide dangling on strings, and was created to honor villagers who committed suicide. “Some things are hard and heavy and about loss of identity and all of the different issues that occur up here,” she explains.
But she’s not opposed to art that makes people look and feel good. In her spare time she creates jewelry and purses, some handcrafted out of sealskin and sea otter, to supplement her income.
Born in Bethel, Alaska and raised in Nome, Kelliher-Combs says her love for the arts blossomed when as a child she watched her mother create clothing and parkas. She doodled in her free time, but had no idea she would still be creating art as an adult. “I think it chose me more than anything else,” she said. “I just enjoy it.”
During her 24-year career, she has received numerous accolades and her work continues to travel on exhibitions across the country. While she has noticed a rise in Native artists coming onto the scene, they rarely gain entry into large-scale national and international exhibitions. “There’s not that many of us in those venues,” she said. “But there’s always going to be something to look forward to.”
Some of her eclectic pieces are touring the country in the collaborative exhibit, “HIDE: Skin as Material and Metaphor,” currently at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The exhibit will open at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico April 15.
For more information visit: sonyakellihercombs.com