Alaska State Museum Temporary Exhibitions

Sonya Kelliher-Combs
Alaska Artist Solo Exhibition

Sonya Kelliher-Combs Interview

Anchorage artist Sonya Kelliher-Combs has an exhibition of recent mixed media works on view at the Alaska State Museum from November 2 to January 12, 2002. Titled Idiot Strings: Catch and Release, the show is a combination of large works on wood panels, and wall pieces comprising groups of smaller objects arranged in grids. The works feature semi-abstract shapes and markings, and sometimes incorporate articles of clothing such as kuspuks. The works are built up using acrylic polymer, polyurethane, cloth, thread, hair, walrus stomach, beads and other materials, many of which reflect her Alaska Native heritage. Ken DeRoux interviewed her at the Museum on November 2, 2001.


Ken: Could you tell us a little bit about your background, how you got interested in making art…

Sonya: I'm from Nome. I was born in Bethel, but raised in Nome. My mother's from Nulato and my father's from Nome, and I also have family up in Barrow. My cultural background includes Athabascan, Inupiaq and also a mixture of German and Irish. I think where I come from, in the sense of place, culture and family, is important to me and impacts the work I create. Growing up with a culturally diverse background is a major influence in my work.

As far as art goes, I was always drawing when I was growing up. I took a couple of art classes in high school and junior high, but I didn't take it that seriously. When I went to school up in Fairbanks, at the University of Alaska, I took a class from David Mollett (Fairbanks artist and painting instructor). He was really challenging. He said only one of you out of this class is going to continue doing this in twenty years…and I thought, well, that's going to be me. So I started from there, took a lot of art classes and Alaska Native Studies classes. I took three years off before I went on to get my Master's degree, and during that time period I was really influenced by formline design, the northwest coast design. In this earlier work I was interested in nature and man, and the conflict of nature and man. I think this theme still runs through my work. In retrospect I see a direct connection between these older works and those I make today. Issues of personal, family, and cultural identity continue to be at the heart of my work. I use traditional symbols and patterns, and non-traditional mediums to illustrate these ideas.

K: Your presentation is definitely contemporary, and from a first impression of the work, you don't necessarily make the connection with traditional Alaska Native art. But then, when you start to look at it, you start making connections. Like the circular drill marks remind me of patterns on old Eskimo scrimshaw.

S: Yeah, sometimes I wonder if people make those connections. I'm really interested in ivory carving. I grew up around it and I love it. I've tried ivory carving, but I'm terrible at it. But I really love the marks, symbols, and patterns. I am especially interested in the geometric patterns, like the Old Bering Sea Period. I think they relate to nature. It hits home for me.

I am also influenced by skin sewing and beading. I think that can be seen in pieces like Scraps. When you're growing up and you spend time, with your mom and your dad, or your grandma and grandpa, there's this time spent learning how to do certain life skills. I think that's what Scraps means to me. Time spent with my mother learning how to sew and bead; that's such an important time. Those times are really precious.

K: What about the shapes? There are these repeated shapes, like one shape I think of as something like a cocoon.

S: Yes, I repeat certain symbols and often use them as patterns. The cocoon shapes are actually from the same place as these little secret forms (small sewn and beaded pouches). I call them secrets. They're metaphorical for the things that are hidden, secrets just beneath the surface. Everybody's got them. They can be cultural secrets, family or personal secrets. I don't know exactly how that form came about. I guess I was thinking of bags and baggage, the things you carry along with you.

K: In your opening statement, or poem -(about the title of the exhibition: Idiot Strings-Catch and Release)-I made a connection to the strings that tie you to your culture, to your past. And I was wondering… I couldn't tell if that was a positive feeling about it, or negative.

S: It's both. I think you can take the good with the bad, it's about that middle ground where everything meets, and one day it's one way and another day it's another way. It's about definition, about self-definition and identity and realization. Every day it changes and evolves. But you can't really cut those strings. You have to hold on to them, because that’s where you come from.

K: What artists have had influences on you? Or would you care to say?

S: You know, when I went to undergraduate school, it was artists like Picasso and De Kooning, and of course the ivory carvers back home. Joe Kunnuk is a great man who I had the chance to work with in Nome, and Jim Schoppert had a huge impact on me when I was an undergraduate. Schoppert was challenging himself to break out of a rigid mold and did not deny the influence of other styles and cultures. His work helped me to realize I could be inspired by other forms of art and not to deny these. Currently I am looking at people like Maya Lin, Ellen Gallagher, Jane Hammond, Anne Wilson.

K: Do you cover over a lot of stuff as you work, do you change things and work over them?

S: Yeah, I'm really interested in the history of the piece. I feel like I have to put a lot into the work, both in time and process. Although some of them are more on the surface I am especially interested in creating a strong sense of history within each work. The dialogue I have with the work is also really important. Time spent. If a work comes too easy, and I have not had that dialogue, it has not made the journey.

K: Where does most of the color come from? Is it acrylic paints…?

S: Yeah, acrylic. And I use things like coffee, dirt, grass, whatever's around, some wine, things like that.

K: And you work flat?

S: Yes. I build up the surface by spreading acrylic polymer with spatulas and pouring with polyurethane. The work needs to be flat with this process.

K: I noticed, looking at the titles of some of the pieces, and also the title of the show, some of the titles are: She was Only Ten, and Her Favorite Color was…there's a use of past tense there. A connection to the past. Is that something you're exploring?

S: Yes, a lot of them are kind of "in memory", especially the kuspuks. In memory of loved ones. These are different (She was only ten series). These are in response to stories I've heard about terrible experiences many people have had as children. They could be about physical or psychological abuse, any kind of neglect or trauma.

K: You went to graduate school in Arizona?

S: In Tempe. I was there for three years, in painting and drawing. It was a really wonderful experience in the end, but at the beginning it was very, very hard. Being away from Alaska and my family was very trying. I had never lived outside Alaska. Being away gave me a whole different sense of where I'm from and what's important in my life.

That experience really changed my work. In my earlier work I felt like I had to put everything into each piece. It was all about struggle, it was all about conflict…they were very dense paintings, there was little breathing room. I think I'm now able to simplify things in some respects.

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Posted 12/3/01