Interviewed by Chela Perley
Sonya Kelliher-Combs is a prolific artist that creates compelling and unique artwork. Her work stood out to me when I was looking in the HIDE: Skin As Material and Metaphor publication that was one of many books available to introduce us to contemporary indigenous artists and curators. As I was deciding which artist to choose, I visited Sonya’s website and was so taken with her work, I knew immediately I wanted to interview her. Like Sonya, I was born and raised in Alaska. I grew up in direct and indirect contact with the indigenous people of Alaska as well as the artwork. As a child and on into adulthood both contemporary and traditional Alaska Native artwork was a natural part of the landscape and in my day to day world in Anchorage where I lived. I saw totem poles, basketry, beadwork, clothing, dolls, drums, ivory and fossil bone carvings, jewelry, masks, paintings, weaving, and wood carvings. Only now am I aware of what a rich heritage I was exposed to and living in the midst of being raised in Alaska. Sonya has taken elements of traditional artwork and practices as well as items from day to day living transforming them into a captivating body of contemporary work unlike anything else I’ve seen. She addresses issues such as abuse, addiction, and suicide within her community. Using elements of subsistence living and harvesting, and she explores her multicultural identity in her artwork. I have found her to be a deeply committed and talented artist and as such, very busy! I would like to thank Sonya for taking the time out of her hectic schedule to participate in this interview.
Sonya Kelliher-Combs, Guarded Secrets, 2005, walrus stomach, porcupine quill and nylon thread.
Chela Perley: I have read that you were born and raised in Alaska. Would you please tell us about your background and how you got interested in making art?
Sonya Kelliher-Combs: Growing up I did not think I would be an artist but was always doodling and making things. It wasn’t until I took a class at the University of Alaska Fairbanks that I realized it was much more than a hobby to me.
Chela Perley: Having been born and raised in Alaska myself, I have an understanding of how remote the community of Nome is, along with the extremes of the seasons and as such, the extremes of dark and light during the seasons. I am very interested to know how you feel growing up in Nome in these unique conditions and how they may have influenced your life and artwork.
Sonya Kelliher-Combs: The sense of light and dark as a condition was not something I gave much thought to growing up. These were just different times of the year to do different things. It wasn’t until I lived away from Alaska that the light began to affect me and I understood how much of an impact it had on me. Today there are times, almost like an internal clock, in which I want to bead, sew, fish or berry pick, and make art.
Sonya Kelliher-Combs, Unraveling Secrets, 2005
Chela Perley: How did your relationships with your family and friends in such an isolated, close-knit community influence your life as a whole and in turn your artwork?
Sonya Kelliher-Combs: Growing up in Nome we understood that you never drove by someone in need. That simple lesson is one that I carry today. People within our community took care of each other, if a hunter had passed away others provided for his family. We never threw something away that might be needed later. I remember working a summer job at the Nome Convention and Visitors Center and hearing visitors say how much junk was lying around people’s homes. Several years later my husband and I used all the stuff stored around my parent’s property to outfit a small studio apartment to live in, including, fridge, bathtub, and a 1950’s sink from my Grandparents home. Growing up in such a place makes one think and look at things differently. It was a wonderful way to grow up and I am very happy I had this experience it will always influence the work I make and the way I live.
Chela Perley: How has living and working in Anchorage, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in Alaska, changed and influenced your life and work after having grown up in Nome? What brought you to Anchorage?
Sonya Kelliher-Combs: A very common quote is that ‘Anchorage is Alaska’s largest village.’ It is in a sense. There are more Alaska Natives in Anchorage than any other community in Alaska. If you had asked me in 1992 if I would move to Anchorage I would have said ‘No way’, but after going to graduate school in Tempe, Arizona I realized Anchorage is not really that big. Living in Anchorage has enabled me to live and work as an artist. It has allowed for many opportunities to do volunteer work and sit on committees and boards that I think are doing important work locally, statewide, and nationally. We moved here for two reasons. First my husband worked out in the field when we lived in Nome, we spent more time apart than together. Second, I wanted to do my work full-time and in Nome that was not feasible, I would need a second job. Many of my family live in Anchorage and as you probably know lots of people come through Anchorage so I don’t feel lonely for people from Nome. What I do often miss is the land, tundra and beauty of our region but I can always go home for a visit.
Sonya Kelliher-combs, Unraveled Gray Secrets, 2005, stretched walrus stomach dipped in acrylic paint
Chela Perley: I have read that many of the exhibits you have created speak to your multicultural identity and your relationship to the place you grew up in and who you are as person. Your work has often addressed issues that you have been directly and indirectly affected by such as suicide and abuse. How has your art making helped you to express yourself as a person and as a member of your community? Do you feel your process has helped you to heal and how do you feel it has helped others to heal?
Sonya Kelliher-Combs: Creating work that addresses difficult issues like suicide, abuse, and marginalization of populations is not always easy. The essential part, to me, is to make work that is true and honest. Sometimes creating this work is cathartic. Sometimes it feels like cutting out a piece of cancer, but most often it is quite and a time to contemplate. Often people have told me how my work has affected them. I can only hope that this work shows people that they are not alone and that these painful issues must be voiced in order to transform and promote healing.
Sonya Kelliher-Combs, Goodbye, 2007
Chela Perley: I am interviewing Kathleen Ash-Milby for the Contemporary North American Indigenous Artists blog. What was your experience working with Kathleen on the HIDE: Skin As Metaphor and Material project and with her in general as a curator of contemporary indigenous art? What was your experience working with the others artists that were invited to participate in the HIDE exhibition?
Sonya Kelliher-Combs: Kathleen Ash-Milby is an amazing woman. I applaud her for the critical work she is doing within the field of Contemporary Indigenous Art and her ability to look and discuss it within the larger context of what we call Contemporary Art. I loved working with Kathleen, and was very thankful to be a part of HIDE: Skin as Material and Metaphor. I am honored to have exhibited with these talented artists, artists I think are doing important work. HIDE has bridged Indigenous Artists and Scholars from all across North America and fostered a much-needed dialogue speaking to issues of Hide/Skin. Living and working in Alaska as an artist is often like living in a bubble. Every opportunity I have to work with other artists and scholars is a welcome opportunity.
Sonya Kelliher-Combs, Small Secrets, 2009, walrus stomach, human hair, glass bead, nylon thread
Chela Perley: How did the HIDE project fit with the work you have been making and exhibiting during or before that time period? Kathleen said in my interview with her that you created work especially for this exhibit. Would you talk about what your inspiration and process was for the work you created?
Sonya Kelliher-Combs: Kathleen approached me to create works for HIDE based on a previous body of work. The pieces in HIDE are an expansion of these ideas. The work I create is inspired by the relationship of our ancestors to their environment — how they used skin, fur, and membrane in material culture. As an artist born of mixed descent — Iñupiaq, Athabascan, Irish, and German — I chronicle the struggle for self-definition and identity. My medium is skin, the surface by which an individual mediates their socio-cultural experience and reality. I examine the relationship and melding of Alaska Native and Western cultures. I strive to create works that address these issues.
Sonya Kelliher-Combs, Idiot Strings, 2005
Chela Perley: What has been some of the artwork you have created that has held the most meaning for you as an artist and why? What are the current projects you are working on?
Sonya Kelliher-Combs: We have one work of mine in our personal collection. It is a mixed media painting called Idiot Strings. It is the first work I created in that series, Idiot Strings, strings that tether mittens to their wearer are memorials to generations of Alaska Natives affected by suicide. It also was my first successful ‘paint skin’ work, synthetic skins made out of acrylic polymer.
I curated an exhibition from the Anchorage Museum Collection in 2007, Con-Census. It was a very rewarding experience. My intention for curating this exhibition was to create a show that addressed many issues close to my heart. In working on this exhibition it became clear that, with the items I selected, I had something to say. As single objects they might speak softly about history, culture, family, and the life of our people. But collectively they could speak loudly about the abuse, marginalization, commodification, and struggle of a people. I created an exhibition that questioned and challenged the perception of these functional objects selected from the Anchorage Museum of History and Art collection. My goal was to present a conceptual installation that is unconventional, a personal exploration of the transformative power of these utilitarian objects.
Currently I am working on an exhibition called ‘Where they Overlap’ for the Gorman Gallery at the University of California at Davis, which opens April 2012. Upcoming exhibitions include True North: Contemporary Art of the Circumpolar North, which will open at the Anchorage Museum in May 2012. I will also be participating as an artist aboard an expedition along coastal Alaska in the summer of 2013, which looks at the issue of marine debris in Alaska and globally. Materials gathered will be used in a group exhibition of artists and scientists which will be exhibited at the Anchorage Museum in 2013 and will travel throughout the Smithsonian’s Institution’s Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES).
Sonya Kelliher-combs, Sea Lion Brand with Blue, 2009, sea lion skin/fur with nylon thread
Chela Perley: Do you think of yourself as a “Contemporary North American Indigenous Artist?” Do you think terms like that one are useful or not? Do you feel like there is a separation between contemporary indigenous artists and the rest of the art world as represented by mainstream art magazines, biennials, art fairs, etc.?
Sonya Kelliher-Combs: As an undergraduate student I fought against the stereotype and title of Alaska Native Artist. I refused to use those terms. At some point, years later, I understood that I could not and did not want to deny my cultural background and how essential it is to the work I create, although the cultures I come from are not the only inspiration I draw from. I do not like the limitation that these titles pose but like in many other fields I understand the need to list and categorize. I think of artists like Judy Chicago and the Feminist Art Movement and how this work fits in the larger field of Contemporary Art and hope that one day the art world opens to all that Contemporary Native Art has to offer and say.
Chela Perley: Can you recommend another artist that we should interview for this blog in the future?
Sonya Kelliher-Combs: Susie Silook, Nicholas Galanin, Erica Lord, Da-ka xeen Mehner, Teri Rofkar
Sonya Kelliher-Combs, Common Thread, 2008–10, reindeer and sheep rawhide, nylon thread
Sonya Kelliher-Combs was raised in the Northwest Alaska community of Nome. Her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree is from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Master of Fine Arts is from Arizona State University. Through her mixed media painting and sculpture, Kelliher-Combs offers a chronicle of the ongoing struggle for self-definition and identity in the Alaskan context. Her combination of shared iconography with intensely personal imagery demonstrates the generative power that each vocabulary has over the other. Similarly, her use of synthetic, organic, traditional and modern materials moves beyond oppositions between Western/Native culture, self/other and man/nature, to examine their interrelationships and interdependence while also questioning accepted notions of beauty. Kelliher-Combs’ process dialogues the relationship of her work to skin, the surface by which an individual is mediated in culture.
Kelliher-Combs’ work has been shown in numerous individual and group exhibitions in Alaska and the contiguous United States, including the national exhibition Changing Hands 2: Art without Reservation and the international exhibition Arts from the Arctic. In 2007, Kelliher-Combs was awarded the prestigious Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art and is a recipient of the 2005 Anchorage Mayors Arts Award. Her work is included in the collections of the Anchorage Museum, Alaska State Museum, University of Alaska Museum of the North, and the Eiteljorg Museum. Kelliher-Combs currently lives and works in Anchorage, Alaska. As an Alaska Native artist and advocate, she serves on the Alaska Native Arts Foundation Exhibitions Committee, Alaska State Council on the Arts Visual Arts Advisory, and Institute of American Indian and Alaska Native Arts Board. She volunteers and donates her expertise and art to numerous organizations and individuals. It is her goal and mission to bring awareness, to educate, and to perpetuate the arts and traditions of the many diverse cultures of Alaska. Current exhibitions include Hide at the National Museum of American Indian Art, New York, NY and THIS IS DISPLACEMENT: Native Artists Consider the Relationship Between Land and Identity a traveling exhibition.