Sonya Kelliher-Combs, One Red Quill, 2009
Acylic polymer, dentalium shell, feather,
nylon thread, porcupine quill
Photo: Chris Arend





Growing up in Nome, Alaska, I spent summers at our camp where we worked, hunted and gathered food and supplies for the winter. It was there where I learned to listen to the land, to my family, and to Elders. Through observation and the practice of time-honored traditions -- skin sewing, beading, and food preparation -- I realized my role as Woman, Daughter, Sister, Wife and Artist. The intimacy of traditional women's work has allowed me to examine the connections between Western and Indigenous cultures. I examine identity through my work. I use techniques learned as a little girl: adorned patterns, symbols and designs infused with meaning.

I'm inspired by the relationship of our ancestors to their environment -- how they used skin, fur and membrane in material culture. The subjects of my work are patterns of history, family, and culture. Through the use of synthetic, organic, traditional and modern materials and techniques I build upon the traditions of my people. Personal symbolism forms the imagery. Symbols speak to history, culture, family, and the life of our people; they also speak about abuse, marginalization and the struggles of indigenous people.

I live in a modern world but still depend on the cultural traditions and values of our people, respect of land, animals, sea and each other. I strive to create works that address these issues.

--Sonya Kelliher-Combs, 2012


Alaska born artist, Sonya Kelliher-Combs creates works in mixed media painting and sculpture that emerge from her experiences and identity as Athabascan, Inupiaq, German and Irish. 

Blending a combination of synthetic, organic, traditional and modern materials, her work defies expectations in its cultural richness and conceptual interpretation of shapes, forms and luminosity.  Utilizing rich organic materials such as walrus stomach, seal intestines, reindeer hide, dentillium shell, elk and moose fur with acrylic polymer, nylon thread, glass beads, fabric and ink; she creates compelling translucent and ambiguous forms.

In her artist statement, Kelliher-Combs writes “These elements combine to examine their interrelationships and interdependence while also questioning accepted notions of beauty.”

The basis or ‘canvas’ for her two- and three-dimensional pieces is animal skin which she stretches, layers, forms and manipulates to both reveal and obscure viewing, while expressing notions of containment and concealment.  There is a muted sense of intimacy and familiarity in recalling the central role of hide and skin within Alaskan Native cultures, that the artist transforms and reshapes into tactile and modern objects that seem unknown, holding their secrets.

Kelliher-Combs' work has been shown in numerous individual and group exhibitions in Alaska and the contiguous United States. She was awarded the Artistic Innovation Award from Native Arts & Cultures Foundation in 2011, the prestigious Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art in 2007, and is a recipient of the 2005 Anchorage Mayors Arts Award.

Her work is included in the collections of the Anchorage Museum, Alaska State Museum, University of Alaska Museum of the North, and the Eiteljorg Museum. Kelliher-Combs currently lives and works in Anchorage, Alaska.

--Veronica Passalacqua, Curator