Layers of personal history

State museum presents Kelliher-Combs' 'Secrets'

Posted: Thursday, November 01, 2001

Sonya Kelliher-Combs has secrets, dozens of secrets that will be revealed at the Alaska State Museum.

The Anchorage artist is featured in a solo exhibit at the museum, opening with a reception from 4:30-6:30 p.m. Friday. In addition to Kelliher-Combs' work, a solo exhibit by Anchorage fine art photographer George Provost will open simultaneously in an adjacent gallery. Both artists will be in Juneau for the opening.

"Secrets" is a series of 84 small drawings and paintings by Kelliher-Combs.

"They are beautiful, intricate drawings, similar to her larger works but on a more intimate scale," said museum Curator Mark Daughhetee. "There will also be a cluster of 24 tiny paintings."


Kelliher-Combs, who grew up in Nome, is of Inupiat, Athabaskan, Irish and German descent. She studied art in Fairbanks and in Tempe, Ariz., and her work has been displayed in more than 20 juried exhibitions, galleries and museums over the past 10 years.

Her heritage figures prominently in her artwork.

"I have a lot about family and identity," she said. "I have this idea that most artists create work that is autobiographical in a lot of ways."

KelliherCombs created many of the pieces in the state museum exhibit by building up layers of polyurethane, acrylic paint and objects. The pieces are thick to the point of becoming three-dimensional.

"Layering speaks to history - personal history and cultural history," said Kelliher-Combs.

In the piece "Idiot Strings, The One That Got Away," bits of yarn, string and thread are encased in polyurethane and acrylic polymer, like a murky memory beneath the surface of awareness.

The artist said "idiot strings" is a term her mother used for mitten strings, the long tether that runs through a jacket and keeps a kid from losing her mittens.

"Those things are metaphorical," said Kelliher-Combs. "They symbolize the things that keep you connected, the things you hang on to. Not because you want to, because you have to. Any traditions, bad memories, things that happened in your family, good things, bad things any number of things."

Some of the pieces are built up on a solid surface such as a thin sheet of plywood. Others are built layer by layer on a plastic cloth.

"Then when I get it more substantial I'll peel it off, then mount it on something to give it stability," she said. "Some curl on their own and stretch and have their own life; they change and grow."

The texture is particularly interesting, she said.

"It's skin-like," she said. "I like the idea of something synthetic that seems lifelike, like a hide or skin."

She calls herself a process artist, who watches the piece evolve and develop as she works it over time - as opposed to a concept artist, who realizes a well-formed, preconceived image.

"I like to spend time with each work, and put them a way for a while and then rework them," she said.

Kelliher-Combs will make her first trip to Juneau this weekend to attend the opening reception. She will not make a formal presentation but will be available for questions. Her work will be on display through mid-January.


Riley Woodford can be reached at

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