Sonya Kelliher-Combs, Stitching Past to Present

I had so many questions for Sonya Kelliher-Combs that I didn’t know where to start. An Inupiaq artist from Alaska, Sonya’s work feels different than most, like it’s of the earth, as if her installations were harvested from the land not made in a studio. Pieces like Red White and Blue Secrets are sewn and stapled and adorn with beads and fibers and hair. Each segment is a word in a poem, a note in a song; they are unique and can stand alone, but together a story emerges.

Red White and Blue Secret, Variable size
Cotton fabric, human hair, glass beads, nylon thread, steel pins, 50 parts

Sonya uses everything, as is her ancestor’s tradition–indeed, the tradition of all native people–but that’s where tradition ends. She takes objects and uses them to form ideas. Red White and Blue Secrets is made from an American flag. The shapes are that of walrus tusks, an animal Alaskans have subsisted on and needed for clothing and shelter. And the tusks, they were uses in adornment to ward off evil. Interesting juxtaposition of materials and ideas.

Mark, Polar Bear is made from polar bear fur. The animal had been harvested for food and the hide given to Sonya to create her art. The fur is adhered to another flag.

If you ever get the chance to stand in front of her work, I urge you to do so. It is quite yet incredibly powerful. As Americans, we bring strong ideas of country and land, power and boundaries. Sonya’s work challenges all these notions. And, truly, this is the artist’s job: challenge ideas, show us the world in a new way, make us think and ask questions.

To learn more about Sonya, check out her page on the PACE Center site or on her website.

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Curator, writer, and strategist for artists and non-profits, Rose Fredrick has spent the last three decades producing exhibitions that have not only raised considerable funds for scholarships and education, but have also launched artists’ careers. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications and her essays and interviews have been used in workshops, college courses, and museum exhibitions. She has won the National Endowment for the Arts grant, Rock West Curator of the Year, Denver’s The Big Read, Best Multicultural Book from the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards, and was a finalist for the Colorado Book Awards.

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