National recognition for 2 Alaska artists

The foundation’s Painters and Sculptors Grant Program began funding under-recognized artists in 1994. (Pixabay)
Alaska was well-represented among recipients of the 2017 Joan Mitchell Foundation’s grant awards for painters and sculptors.

There are only 25 winners from around the country, and two of them are Alaskans: Anchorage residents Sonya Kelliher-Combs and Drew Michael.

The grantees receive $25,000 each, along with some well-deserved recognition.

Kelliher-Combs said she was eating breakfast with her aunt and uncle when she got the call telling her she’d won.

“Complete shock. You know, all I could say was, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you,’” Kelliher-Combs said. “It was a very exciting moment.”

A secret hard to keep

Exciting, Kelliher-Combs said, because she knows how competitive the grants are. But because the foundation had other calls to make and press releases write, they asked her not to tell anyone.

“I was smiling all day that day, and I couldn’t tell anybody!” Kellier-Combs said. “It’s hard when you find out some good news.”

Kelliher-Combs’ work — just to mention a couple pieces — includes evocative, colorful paintings, as well as sculptures of walrus stomach and porcupine quills, a combination of her Inupiaq and Athabascan heritage.

Discovering indigenous culture

In general, Kelliher-Combs said her art features themes of place, community and identity, specifically, the ongoing struggle to define oneself and discover identity.

“Tied into all of that is issues of Alaska, colonization, also our relationship to the land, conflict of western and indigenous culture,” Kelliher-Combs said. “Things like that.”

The foundation’s nomination process is confidential, so Michael and Kelliher-Combs do not know who submitted their names.

The foundation’s Painters and Sculptors Grant Program began funding “under-recognized” artists, as they put it, in 1994. Since then, only one other artist living and working in Alaska has won a grant, though there have been other Alaska Native awardees living elsewhere.

Michael said he was also surprised and honored to get the phone call.

“They did happen to choose two people from Alaska, and, yeah, my eyebrows rose, for sure. Kinda cool!” Michael said.

The spotlight is the real prize

Michael said he’s thrilled about the money but that the spotlight on his artwork, the continuing support and the connection to other artists is maybe more important for him.

Michael’s art is rooted in his culture, both Yupik and Inupiaq, he said, and he has evolved from carving masks to sculpting.

“Oftentimes, I’m looking through the lens of finding healing or balance, thinking about how we carry energy in our body and how we connect to the world around us, whether it be in relationships with people or maybe animals in the world around us, and the spirit world, the places that are unseen,” Michael said.

Michael said the funding will help him branch out into using new materials, like glass and metal, and, perhaps, take his art to new places where it, toom has so far been unseen.

Related stories from around the North:

Casey Grove, Alaska Public Media

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