The search for self-discovery and the right to self-definition have characterized the artistic career of Alaskan-based mixed-media sculptor Susie Qimmiqsaq Bevins-Ericsen (1941- ). The daughter of a Norwegian-Inupiat woman and an English trader who died while she was still an infant, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Bevins-Ericsen grew up acutely aware that she was different from the other children, yet raised within the Native community and tradition. Straddling the uncomfortable terrain between two cultures, Bevins-Ericsen turned to artwork in her late twenties as an avenue for exploring the inner conflict between her cross-cultural identities. As a young Eskimo woman working in what was considered to be a man’s art form, she was frequently questioned for her choices and instructed to “make parkas” rather than sculptures and assemblages. Determined to make art on her terms, Bevins-Ericsen studied at the Atlanta School of Art from 1968 to 1969, the Anchorage Community College from 1970 to 1971 and the Visual Arts Center of Alaska from 1981 to 1987.
Split Between Two Cultures (n.d.), produced during this early period of her career, exemplifies her exploration of bi–cultural identity. This split-faced wooden mask — one side covered in interlocking circles of aluminum (standing for her Caucasian ancestry) and brass (representing her Inupiaq heritage), and the other side frozen in a scream — was created during a period when limited opportunities were available to Native woman artists. At a time when our understanding of hybridity in Indigenous culture was newly fledged and fraught with accusations of inauthenticity, Bevins-Ericsen’s work was nothing short of revolutionary.
Throughout her career, Bevins-Ericsen has created numerous monumental works of public art intended to raise awareness about the legacies of colonization and the troubles human beings have brought upon themselves through disconnections between people, animals and the land. Tent of Meaning (1993), made entirely of natural Arctic materials, is a meditation on the exploitation of Mother Earth and the loss of spiritual values, but also on the ways we can heal ourselves and the planet through communion with our ancestors and a return to a more balanced way of life. Never one to shy away from representing the darker side of contemporary culture, Bevins-Ericsen has confronted both violence against women and issues of addiction and abuse in her work. Her large-scale sculptural installation People in Peril — Bound byAlcohol (1988) depicts a series of four wood, aluminum and plexiglas figures bound tightly in sinew, each in the process of becoming skeletal, symbolizing the death of collective culture and individual spirit through substance abuse. These works are representative of Bevins-Ericsen’s continued efforts to expose historical trauma and to heal and fortify her culture from within.
Today, as one of the first Native women to successfully explore the male-dominated realm of sculpture, Bevins-Ericsen has enjoyed a great degree of success in her public art and has entered the ranks of Alaska’s most cherished artists. Besides holding and participating in countless local workshops and symposia, Bevins-Ericsen helped to found the Alaska Native Arts Foundation. Her commissioned work can been seen in numerous public sites in Anchorage and throughout her home state of Alaska, as well as in the collections of the Anchorage Museum and the Pratt Museum in Homer, Alaska. At the fore of the historical movement in Alaska to free artists from limiting definitions of how to make Native art, Susie Qimmiqsaq Bevins-Ericsen pioneered a bold new cross-cultural style that would empower the next generation of Alaska Native women artists to challenge the limits of expression.