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'New Skin' highlights Alaska Native artists' connection to culture

Trina Landlord
Courtesy ANAF

A group of Alaska Native artists will be featured for the First Friday Exhibit in the month of January at the Alaska Native Arts Foundation in downtown Anchorage. Their show, titled “New Skin,” represents contemporary views by Sonya Kelliher-Combs of the relationship of work to skin, the surface by which an individual is grounded in culture.

The group of artists participated in a four-day workshop led by Kelliher-Combs in November 2012. The artists involved were: Shyanne Beatty (Athabascan), Phillip John Charette (Yup’ik), Ken Lisbourne (Inupiat) and Holly Nordlum (Inupiat). Additionally, four youth -- Daniel Keyes, Douglas Rorem, Diamond Williams and Jacob White -- from the Alaska Native Heritage Center’s High School Program participated in the art workshop.

This summer, Kelliher-Combs went to the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka to study items in their collection. The outcome of her research was a goal to share her experience with other artists. The workshop materialized, and the mediums the participants learned were in synthetic paint-skin making made. The technique is created by making a stretched “skin” surface through the application of thick layers of acrylic polymer or polyurethane. The workshop evolved to an art exhibit at the Alaska Native Arts Foundation.

As part of the workshop, the participants had the opportunity to go behind-the-scenes to visit the collection at the Arctic Studies Center at the Anchorage Museum. The artists and students spent time with 16 objects to find inspiration in the work of their ancestors. The group, including staff members Beckie Etukeok and Ed Bourgeois from the Alaska Native Heritage Center, spent the week learning Kelliher-Combs’ synthetic paint-skin making techniques and working on wood panels.

The artists created two wood panel pieces -- one will be donated to the Municipality of Anchorage Public Art Collection and the other will stay with the artist. One work was also displayed at the Anchorage Museum’s Alaska Native Family Day in November.

Shyanne Beatty is Hangwichin Athabascan from Eagle. She graduated from the Art Institute of Seattle with an Associate of Arts degree. Beatty also hosts and produces Earthsongs on a radio station, KNBA.

“My experience was amazing,” Beatty said. “I had the complete honor to work with one of the most amazing contemporary Alaska Native artists and learn how to do her amazing pieces that I cherish so much.”

Beatty went on to say:

“We did two pieces, the first one I did was a gel acrylic piece that I incorporated beach grass into and used a fish net to texture the piece. I beaded on a small portion of it and used vibrant colors that I was used to seeing in a lot of Helen Simeonoff’s work and so in memory of Helen Simeonoff I titled it Wëneydèy -- I remember her (Hän Gwich’in Athabascan). Working side by side with such amazing artists as Holly Nordlum, Philip Charette, Beckie Etukeok and Ken Lisbourne were so wonderful. Holly and Philip really helped me as I was creating my pieces with great feedback and it was great to be able to bounce ideas off all these artists as we were creating our pieces. Overall I would have to say I am very blessed that I got to have such a great honor to work with everyone and learn various forms of art with Kelliher-Combs, who I think is such an inspiring, amazing and creative woman that I love very much!”

Phillip John Charette specializes in contemporary art in the Yup’ik tradition. His works include masks, fine art prints, and mixed-media sculpture, healing jewelry and Yup’ik drums. He is also a musician who composes and plays Native American flute music and designs his own flutes.

Ken Lisbourne is Inupiat from Point Hope. He draws on his memories of traditional-life activities and hunting as inspiration for his watercolor scenes.

Holly Nordlum is an Inupiat artist from Kotzebue. She attended the University of Alaska Anchorage and completed a fine arts degree in graphic design and photography. She explores jewelry making, printmaking and sculpture.

“Such an honor to work with Sonya, who I admire and respect so much as an Inupiaq artist,” Nordlum said. “Also, working with the other artists was such a valuable experience; to work together and inspire each other, how often do we get to do that with such great individuals. I was so lucky to have been asked to participate and I am so thankful!”

Contemporary artist Sonya Kelliher Combs’ family hails from Nulato, Nome and Barrow. She received a bachelor’s in fine arts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a master’s degree from Arizona State University. She uses synthetic, organic, traditional and modern materials in her work.

The workshop was a collaboration with the National Museum of the American Indian, Sheldon Jackson Museum, Alaska Native Heritage Center and Arctic Studies Center at the Anchorage Museum and Anchorage Municipality Public Art Program.

Visit the Alaska Native Arts Foundation in January to view their collective art exhibit.

Trina Landlord is the Executive Director of the Alaska Native Arts Foundation. She can be reached at trina(at)alaskanativearts.org