Sonya Kelliher-Combs teaches a youth activity Saturday afternoon where Juneau middle school students were invited to learn how to create a a pouch made from hog intestine and embellished with beads and natural materials. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Sonya Kelliher-Combs teaches a youth activity Saturday afternoon where Juneau middle school students were invited to learn how to create a a pouch made from hog intestine and embellished with beads and natural materials. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

‘It’s a part of who I am’

Artist uses the endangered art of marine mammal gut to explore the truth of Alaska Native history

Spending four hours on a Saturday afternoon teaching a dozen middle schoolers how to learn the intricacies of beading with gut isn’t exactly a relaxing afternoon. But for Sonya Kelliher-Combs, her love for sharing the beauty of her culture supersedes the chaos.

Kelliher-Combs, a multi-medium artist originally from Nome, recently unveiled her first of three interrelated exhibitions “Visceral: Verity” Friday evening at the Alaska State Museum in downtown Juneau. She said her work juxtaposes synthetic materials with natural materials like marine mammal gut to bring more awareness to the truth of the authentic experiences of Alaska Native and Indigenous peoples history.

The series “Credible, Idiot Strings” features cotton fabric, nylon thread and steel wire to draw attention to the high rates of suicide in Alaska Native and Indigenous communities. The series is a part of the new exhibition “Visceral: Verity” on display at the Alaska State Museum. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

The series “Credible, Idiot Strings” features cotton fabric, nylon thread and steel wire to draw attention to the high rates of suicide in Alaska Native and Indigenous communities. The series is a part of the new exhibition “Visceral: Verity” on display at the Alaska State Museum. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Her installations featured in the exhibition glimmer under the lights shining in the gallery, some look as though they are about to drip oil onto the ground below. Bright beads and neon colors clash against the warm glow of the intestines reimagined into pouches small and large.

“It’s such a beautiful material, It’s luminous, its got its own life in it — it even moves and changes,” she said. “And the juxtaposition is a direct commentary on the exploitation of nature and our relationship to the natural world.”

Paired with the exhibition’s opening, Kelliher-Combs also lead a youth activity Saturday afternoon where middle school students were invited to learn how to create a “portable secret,” a pouch made from hog intestine and embellished with beads and natural materials.

The series “Credible, Small Secrets” features materials including walrus stomach, reindeer and sheep rawhide and human hair to examine the trauma of abuse. The series is a part of the new exhibition “Visceral: Verity” on display at the Alaska State Museum. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

The series “Credible, Small Secrets” features materials including walrus stomach, reindeer and sheep rawhide and human hair to examine the trauma of abuse. The series is a part of the new exhibition “Visceral: Verity” on display at the Alaska State Museum. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

“I think it’s important to share — that’s how we learn, that’s the way I learned,” she said. “I think right now, we have this fast-consuming society, and a lot of time moments like these are lost. It’s not about the object you create, it’s about the time you spend together, and I think that’s something that’s been missing in the world today.”

The series “Credible, Small Secrets” features materials including walrus stomach, reindeer and sheep rawhide and human hair to examine the trauma of abuse. The series is a part of the new exhibition “Visceral: Verity” on display at the Alaska State Museum. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

The series “Credible, Small Secrets” features materials including walrus stomach, reindeer and sheep rawhide and human hair to examine the trauma of abuse. The series is a part of the new exhibition “Visceral: Verity” on display at the Alaska State Museum. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Kelliher-Combs said her work is heavily influenced by her Iñupiaq and Athabascans heritage and said using marine mammal gut in her art is how she expresses her truth, and it gives her comfort.

“It’s a part of who I am and where I come from,” she said.

Kelliher-Combs said she is “truly honored” to have her work featured at the museum, and is excited for her two upcoming interrelated exhibitions that will debut in May. She said the upcoming exhibitions will further explore contemporary and historical Alaska Native issues.

“Creating awareness is important to me, and unearthing the truth of our history — Alaska Native history and colonialist history,” she said. “It’s not just Alaska that has been impacted — so many Indigenous and first-person cultures have been impacted by the western world. Those are things we need to address and rectify and create awareness.”

Know & Go

What: Sonya Kelliher-Combs solo exhibition “Visceral: Verity”

Where: Alaska State Museum, 395 Whittier St., Andrew P. Kashevaroff Building.

When: March. 3 through mid-October.

• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter at @clariselarson.

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