Sonya Kelliher-Combs is an Alaskan artist whose work explores family stories, secrets, messages, and myths -- ranging from the secrets of child abuse to the cultural myths of what it means to be a multi-cultural woman in the modern world.
Born of Inupiaq (Eskimo), Athabascan (Indian), Irish, and German heritage, Kelliher-Combs was raised in Nome, studied at the University of Alaska, received her MFA from Arizona State University, and now lives in Anchorage. She uses both organic and synthetic materials in her art, creating a dialog between the natural and man-made, between the traditional and modern, and between Native and Western culture. Her paintings, multi-media pieces, and installations have been exhibited across the U.S., and can be found in the permanent collections of several museums in her home state.
In an article for SouthwestArt magazine, Dottie Indyke writes: "Metaphor is central to her work...[which] often represents personal and collective secrets, as in Unraveled Secrets, in which she wove a single thread through thousands of steel quilting needles tacked to the wall, creating a virtual line drawing of a 'secret'. In the exhibit Changing Hands 2, her pouches made of walrus stomach pierced with porcupine quills are representative of secrets shielded from the outside and fortified from within. The forms are based on the Inupiaq practice of adorning parkas with walrus tusks.
"In one series about emotional, physical, and psychological abuse [of children], she stretched secondhand undergarments as her Native ancestors might have stretched hides. In another, about memory and history, she submerged found clothing in layers of paint. She has used scraps of fabric and animal skin in homage to the time youngsters spend with their mothers learning to knit or sew. Following in the tradition of artists Eva Hesse and Judy Chicago, Kelliher-Combs also probes the intimacy of women's work: the small, repetitive, manual labors which are often overlooked yet greatly contribute to the comfort of the world. Often with minimal vocabulary, she speaks to the balance between humans and nature by juxtaposing organic and synthetic materials. These side-by-side comparisons also serve as Kelliher-Combs' musings on her own mixed heritage." (Read the full article here.)
"Issues of personal, family, and cultural identity continue to be at the heart of my work," says Kelliher-Combs. "I use traditional symbols and patterns, and non-traditional mediums to illustrate these ideas." Visit the Alaska State Museum website to see more of her work, to read an interview with the artist, and to read the moving poem she wrote as her Artist Statement.