Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

Sonya Kelliher-Combs

By Heather Igloliorte

Artist Sonya Kelliher-Combs navigates the tricky terrain of personal and cultural identity with virtuosity and impressive dexterity. Drawing on centuries-old Inupiaq traditions, Kelliher-Combs smoothly integrates ancient geometric bow-drill designs and early contact period scrimshaw patterns; artfully references Inuit tattooing and traditional clothing ornamentation; stretches fabric and clothing across canvas to resemble animal hides; and makes lazy-stitched beads into a mnemonic device that literally draws a thread between past to present. And yet somehow, the strength of these cultural continuities in her work does not overpower the substance of her ongoing study of skin and surface as both metaphor and cultural mediator. The mutually constitutive elements of the collective and the individual find perfect equilibrium in Kelliher-Combs’s work through the play of personal iconography and the acts of historical, communal, and individual memorialization.  “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.”[1]

The Inupiaq/Athabascan (and German/Irish) Kelliher-Combs began exhibiting her work the same year she received her B.F.A. from the University of Alaska, 1992, and since completing her M.F.A. from Arizona State University in 1998, has been featured in numerous group and solo exhibitions. Her work is included in the 2010 exhibition Hide: Skin as Material and Metaphor at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, New York, NY. Skin is a recurring theme in Kelliher-Combs’s work, for which she has developed a distinctive style, creating the stretched “skin” surface of her paintings through the application of thick layers of acrylic polymer or polyurethane. These layers are built up slowly and embedded with scraps of clothing, hair, fur, walrus stomach, and other found materials, pigmented with vibrant colors and pockmarked with circular pores, spiral eddies and beaded loops that imbue the surface of the “skin” with “secrets.” Kelliher-Combs explains that her interest is in the nature of secrets, not the content—and these secrets take many forms.

Kelliher-Combs first explored these themes in the Secret Paintings series (2002), where provocative found fabrics formed the ground for a translucent and evocatively tinted polymer skin. In Unraveled Secrets (2005) Kelliher-Combs looped a single thread through thousands of steel quilting needles pushed into the gallery wall, connoting community and continuity. For the series Guarded Secrets (2005), she plunged porcupine quills into small heart-sized gut and hide sculptures, making armored vessels to both protect and conceal.

Some of her most moving and disturbing ‘secret’ pieces are based on trauma and loss, and interrogate the darkest corners of culture and society. The ground for the two works entitled She Was Only Ten (2002), for example, is made of children’s underclothes, and references legacies of physical, psychological, and emotional abuse and neglect. These works are meant to be transformational acts of healing and remembering, similar in purpose to one of her most famous works to date, Idiot Strings (2005-07), an installation whose title refers to the strings that connect mittens so you don’t lose them. Comprised of twenty-five waxed-wool strings connecting pairs of thin walrus gut pouches, Strings hangs above a platform that catches the ghostly shadows cast by the ephemeral installation, forming glimmering transparencies on the surface below. Idiot Strings began as a project to commemorate the suicide of relatives and, as it developed became a work about collective loss and a reflection on the devastating impacts of suicide in Native communities. The work is at once tragic and beautiful. These simultaneous tensions—between trauma and remembering, hidden and revealed, fascinating and repulsive, personal and cultural—are what continue to make Kelliher-Combs’s artwork so engaging and compelling.

[1] Kelliher-Combs, in “Sonia Kelliher-Combs Interview” with Ken DeRoux, November  2, 2001,