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To make a memory

By Amy Kenny

There’s something about working with your hands that changes the conversations you have, says Sonya Kelliher-Combs. It’s something she noticed, even as a child—the physical act of making can transform a talk and strengthen your memories of the experience. 

“Your mom gives you something to work on and you watch her and you are learning by watching, but also, spending time ends up not being about what you make,” says Kelliher-Combs, an Iñupiaq artist who was raised in Nome, Alaska. “It isn’t about that finished product. It’s about that time spent, and that’s something that is so missing in the modern contemporary world today.” 

That’s what she wants to bring to the Yukon Arts Centre this month when she leads a fish skin workshop on Aug. 23 and 24.

Kelliher-Combs, who holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a Master of Fine Arts from Arizona State University, works in mixed media painting and sculpture. She often incorporates hides and hair, natural and synthetic, traditional and modern materials in her exploration of culture, self-definition and identity. 

During the weekend workshop, Kelliher-Combs will teach participants how to process fish skin and sew it into a medicine pouch. Really though, in much the same way Kelliher-Combs learned more from her mother than crafting, the fish skin pouch isn’t the point of the weekend. 

“The goal is to create a new kind of connection between people who haven’t met before,” she says. “It’s a healthy way to exchange ideas, when people are working with their hands. It feels like we’re solving the world’s problems one bead or one craft at a time.” 

The weekend will also mark the end of the run for Goodbye, Kelliher-Combs’ current exhibit at YAC. 

The show, which has been up since May, features dozens of mitts of all sizes and materials, spread out across a rectangular dais. All of them stand on end, fingers pointed up, as though waving. The work serves as a memorial to those in Indigenous communities who have lost their lives to suicide, particularly those in the North, where suicide rates among the First Nations communities of Alaska are three times the U.S. national average. 

While Kelliher-Combs says the workshop isn’t explicitly connected to her exhibition, and you certainly don’t have to have lost someone to participate in it, for her, there is a connection between the workshop and the show. When she started making her fish skin medicine pouches, she did so to give them to friends who had lost someone to suicide.  

“People liked the idea that they could put something inside the pouch and the idea that they could carry that with them. So that’s where that comes from. They’re a memorial pouch for something special.” 

During the workshop, Kelliher-Combs will show participants (the workshop is capped at nine) how to deflesh salmon skin and degrease it so it can be used for a variety of things. She will then lead the workshop in stitching salmon skin and beading the skin. Kelliher-Combs says it’s an approachable task that can be done even if you’ve never sewn skin or beaded before. 

And, again, the greater takeaway in her mind is the experience of physically making something together, including the memories that can be strengthened when talk and a task take place in the same space.  

The workshops have been sold out, but Kelliher-Combs will be giving a free artist talk about her work on Sunday, August 25 at 1:00pm at the Yukon Arts Centre Gallery.