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Sandra K. Stolle

Sandy Stolle is a woodcarver who lives in Seward. She often draws on the years she and her husband lived in Selawik as she creates her art. She has learned not to overthink and to “just go.”


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‘With Wood, You Don’t Always Know What You’ll Get’

On a wooded street just north of Seward, woodcarver Sandy Stolle lives with her husband Jerry Olive and their Airedale Terrier, Ellie Mae Dickins. With her gruff bark, Ellie Mae is a good bear alarm. Stolle says the fishery across the street is like McDonald’s for bears.

Inside her pitched roof house, tall walls are filled with spindly caribou antlers, fish hooks, and crayon drawings, artifacts from the 12 years the couple spent up in Selawik, 90 miles east of Kotzebue, above the Arctic Circle.

Selawik is a long way from Lakewood, Colorado where Stolle grew up. “I was lucky,” she says. “I went to an awesome high school. We had three art teachers.” One spent his summer vacations scoping out college art programs and then coming back to tell his students about them.

Fresh out of college, over 40 years ago, Stolle and Olive moved to Selawik. “That’s where I became a man,” says Olive. “And that’s where I became an artist,” adds Stolle. One of the first people Olive met was skinning muskrat hides. He thought to himself, this is the place.

Back then, there was only one phone in Selawik. In 1980, they used the CB radio to invite everyone in town to their wedding. Someone brought a half a salami. Someone else brought an apple. A towel and a bottle of Head & Shoulders shampoo were some of their wedding presents.

Everything was an adventure. There was no flush toilet. “We didn’t have running water for years,” says Stolle, “but when you get too comfortable, you don’t always appreciate things.” They did have friends. When other teachers in the Bush might have hopped on the first plane out on that last day of school, Olive and Stolle stuck around. They got invited to weddings. They went to funerals. They had children. They watched kids grow up. They watched out for each other.

Elders taught them how to set nets, how to make rafts, how to keep a dog team. They gave the couple Iñupiaq names, which is an honor. One Christmas, the Iñupiaq (bilingual) teacher asked Stolle, “What are you going to make Jerry? You should make him a beaver hat.” So, under the teacher’s tutelage, she did. When Olive wore his new hat to a basketball game, the ladies passed it around to examine Stolle’s stitches.

“We could go on and on about Selawik,” says Olive. “Inspirationally,” says Stolle, “being out on the land was huge.” In 1990, they moved to Seward because they wanted to try living in a bigger small town. Getting wood shipped to Selawik for Stolle’s increasingly large-scale commissions was getting way too expensive. Now, she says, “I have plenty of wood to keep me going.”

In Seward, they found friends too. The Resurrect Art Coffee House in a historic church became kind of a living room for the artists in town.

In ’90 or ’91, they built Stolle’s studio. Inside, chisels are lined up like soldiers. “Every time woodworkers do a project,” Sandy says, “you buy yourself a tool.” The European chisels, Japanese tools and American-made Flexcut mallet tools add up to a lot of projects. One of the first murals that Sandy carved in her studio was for the Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward. Inmates helped install the piece.

Respected wood sculptor Roy Setziol was one of Stolle’s mentors. “His use of texture really opened my eyes to things you can do.” Carving wood is like working with stone. It’s a matter of taking material away. “You knock off blocks of wood and start shaping. With commissions, people want to see drawings,” she says, “but with wood, you don’t always know what you’ll get. You draw on wood, but you lose the design as soon as you start carving.” Stolle has learned not to overthink and “just go.”

Freedom of play and working intuitively are Stolle’s goals. “With wood, it’s kind of hard to have a plan. You don’t know. You get a feeling from the piece. You see the way the grain works. You use the natural movement of the wood.”

As she works, Stolle returns to Selawik in her mind. She remembers sitting with elders as they listened for the birds. “It meant you made it through another winter.”

Carol Richards is an Iñupiaq writer and designer. Her nonfiction writing has appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review and Best Creative Nonfiction (Volume 2) and was selected as a notable essay in Best American Essays.

Image credits - All gallery images and artist portrait courtesy of the artist. Writer portrait courtesy of the writer.