Interviewed by Chela Perley
Sonya Kelliher-Combs is a prolific artist that creates compelling and unique artwork. Her work stood out to me when I was looking in the HIDE: Skin As Material and Metaphor publication that was one of many books available to introduce us to contemporary indigenous artists and curators. As I was deciding which artist to choose, I visited Sonya’s website and was so taken with her work, I knew immediately I wanted to interview her. Like Sonya, I was born and raised in Alaska. I grew up in direct and indirect contact with the indigenous people of Alaska as well as the artwork. As a child and on into adulthood both contemporary and traditional Alaska Native artwork was a natural part of the landscape and in my day to day world in Anchorage where I lived. I saw totem poles, basketry, beadwork, clothing, dolls, drums, ivory and fossil bone carvings, jewelry, masks, paintings, weaving, and wood carvings. Only now am I aware of what a rich heritage I was exposed to and living in the midst of being raised in Alaska. Sonya has taken elements of traditional artwork and practices as well as items from day to day living transforming them into a captivating body of contemporary work unlike anything else I’ve seen. She addresses issues such as abuse, addiction, and suicide within her community. Using elements of subsistence living and harvesting, and she explores her multicultural identity in her artwork. I have found her to be a deeply committed and talented artist and as such, very busy! I would like to thank Sonya for taking the time out of her hectic schedule to participate in this interview.
Sonya Kelliher-Combs, Guarded Secrets, 2005, walrus stomach, porcupine quill and nylon thread.
Chela Perley: I have read that you were born and raised in Alaska. Would you please tell us about your background and how you got interested in making art?
Sonya Kelliher-Combs: Growing up I did not think I would be an artist but was always doodling and making things. It wasn’t until I took a class at the University of Alaska Fairbanks that I realized it was much more than a hobby to me.
Chela Perley: Having been born and raised in Alaska myself, I have an understanding of how remote the community of Nome is, along with the extremes of the seasons and as such, the extremes of dark and light during the seasons. I am very interested to know how you feel growing up in Nome in these unique conditions and how they may have influenced your life and artwork.
Sonya Kelliher-Combs: The sense of light and dark as a condition was not something I gave much thought to growing up. These were just different times of the year to do different things. It wasn’t until I lived away from Alaska that the light began to affect me and I understood how much of an impact it had on me. Today there are times, almost like an internal clock, in which I want to bead, sew, fish or berry pick, and make art.