Sonya Kelliher Combs Exhibit, September 2019
I am an artist of mixed decent: Iñupiaq from the Alaska North Slope community of Utqiagvik, and Athabascan from the interior village of Nulato. My family, cultures and relationship to the land influence all that I do. Because of this, I choose to live and work in Alaska.
Growing up in a rural community, I was taught that the land and sea would provide resources, spiritual and physical, necessary to sustain a healthy life. We have unspoken truths: honor all that you harvest; respect the natural world that provides for you, your family and community; take care of one another; and do not take more than you need. Nothing is more beautiful than growing up on the land, harvesting with your family and understanding that you are a part of this place.
As a child I spent summers at our camp where we worked, hunted and gathered food and supplies for the winter. It was there I learned to listen, learning from family, community and nature. Through the observation and practice of time-honored traditions – skin sewing, beading and food preparation – I realized my role as Woman, Daughter, Sister, Wife and Artist. Traditional women’s work taught me to appreciate the intimacy of intergenerational knowledge and material histories. These experiences and skills have allowed me to examine the connections between Western and Indigenous cultures, and to investigate notions of interwoven identity through my work.
Through the use of synthetic, organic, traditional and modern materials and techniques, I build upon the traditions of my people. I am inspired by our ancestors and their relationship to their environment embodied in their use of skin, fur and membrane in material culture. The subjects of my work are patterns of history, family and culture. Personal and cultural symbolism forms the imagery. These symbols speak to history, culture, family and the life of our people. They also speak about abuse, marginalization and the historical and contemporary struggles of Indigenous peoples.
I live in a modern world, but I still depend on the cultural traditions and values of our people, including respect for land, animals, the sea and fellow humans. I strive to create works that carry on these values and address the persistent importance of traditional knowledge.
Kelliher-Combs received her BFA from University of Alaska, Fairbanks, MFA from Arizona State University. Her work has been shown in numerous individual and group exhibitions, including Sakahan, HIDE: Skin As Material Metaphor and SITELINES: Much Wider Than a Line. She is a recipient of the prestigious United States Arts Fellowship, Joan Mitchell Fellowship, Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art, Rasmuson Fellowship and is a recipient of the 2005 Anchorage Mayors Arts Award and 2010 Alaska Governor’s Individual Artist Award. Her work is included in the collections of the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Art, Anchorage Museum, Alaska State Museum, University of Alaska Museum of the North, Eiteljorg Museum, and National Museum of the American Indian. Kelliher-Combs currently lives and works in Anchorage, Alaska.