Jeff Baird, Program Officer
Rasmuson Foundation

Anchorage, AK – Rasmuson Foundation has named artist Gertrude Svarny of Unalaska its 2017 Distinguished Artist. The award recognizes one Alaska artist annually for a lifetime of creative excellence and contributions to arts and culture in the State. It is accompanied by a $40,000 award that she can use to further immerse herself in the exploration and development of her artistry.

Svarny grew up in Unalaska, until she was evacuated and interned during World War II, along with nearly 900 Unangax (Aleut) people of the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands. Their internment lasted years and those who survived and returned home, found their communities ransacked and burned. Svarny was featured in the documentary film, The Aleut Story. In it she comments, “We lost lots of elders. I think that’s why our culture just stood still for a long time.”

In her younger years, Svarny painted but it wasn’t until the age of 51 that she dedicated her life to her art. Although she is well-known primarily for her intricate ivory and soapstone sculptures, Svarny is also a well-respected bentwood artist and weaver.

“Gertrude gave me an ivory sea otter holding a baby duck,” said friend and fellow Alaskan artist Alvin Amason.  “When I look at this otter, I can see her reverence and peaceful affection for Unalaska and its waters. When we have this sense of place, it makes our work vibrant. Gertrude is a generous friend and likes to share one of her island secrets: it has the largest salmon berries in the world. This award is so well deserved. Gertrude and her girls are Unungan treasures and keepers of the island ways.”

Svarny’s work is housed in numerous permanent collections. She has perpetuated Unangan art and culture through her work and teachings. In 2008, she received the Governor’s Award for Native Arts. She has been a director of the Institute of Alaska Native Arts, a member of the Board of Regents of the Institute of American Indian Arts, and served for many years on the Aleutian Arts Council. She was instrumental in preserving Unangan culture classes in the Unalaska schools. She was also a culture bearer for Camp Qungaayux, Unalaska’s annual culture camp, where she taught classes in Unangan weaving and design.

Now 87, Svarny continues to be a prolific working artist. “She is much appreciated as a mentor and source of unflagging encouragement to many local and regional artists and writers, both Native and non-Native,” says Sharon Svarny-Livingston, who nominated her mother for the award.

You can see samples of Svarny’s artwork on our website.

Rasmuson Foundation also awarded nine fellowships ($18,000 each) and 25 project awards ($7,500 each) to 34 artists as part of its Individual Artists Awards program. A Fellowship is an unrestricted award for mid-career and mature artists to focus their energy and attention for a   one-year period on developing their creative work.

The Project Award is designed for emerging, mid-career and mature artists to be used on a specific, short-term project that has clear benefits to the artist’s growth and development.

Awardees, who include poets, choreographers, writers, multi-disciplinary artists, carvers, composers, folk and traditional artists and performance artists, were chosen from 450 applicants, and represent 14 Alaskan communities. You can see samples of each artists work and videos that showcase their accomplishments on our Individual Artists Awards web page.

2017 Fellows

Earl F. Atchak of Chevak will create masks for a new exhibit. He will construct a standalone studio and identify and train an apprentice to ensure the continuation of his ancestors’ mask-making tradition.

Breezy Berryman of Homer will expand her original dance, Nature’s Walk, and turn it into a film that explores the four seasons, using Alaska’s landscape to inform and inspire the choreography.

Beth Blankenship of Anchorage will create a dozen bead and fiber pieces that tell a story of human connection to the natural world and our impact on Alaska’s animals and those who rely on them.

Olena Kalytiak Davis of Anchorage will develop a novella that straddles the border of poetry and prose, stretching the 14-line sonnet structure to book form and interspersing narrative and verse.

Erin Coughlin Hollowell of Homer will explore issues of patriarchy, culture, and how family history shapes us for her third poetry collection, Flung Stone, Dark Wing.

Tom Kizzia of Homer will complete an essay about history, time, and loss in McCarthy. He will also work on two memoirs – one delving into his family’s history in Arkansas, the second detailing Alaska’s transformation as he experienced it living in a cabin while working as a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News.

Enzina Marrari of Anchorage will explore concepts of protection, vulnerability, and personal truths through a series of multimedia performances to be produced for either the stage or a live gallery installation.

Maria Shell of Anchorage will explore non-linear shapes in 12 large quilts incorporating curves and curved quilt blocks.

Agnes Thompson of Anchorage will travel to her home village of Atka in the Aleutians to experiment with the local process of gathering and curing grass for Unangan basket weaving. She will collaborate with the director of cultural affairs for the Atka IRA Council to document and preserve the knowledge in a pamphlet.

2017 Project Awards

Carmel Anderson of Ketchikan will provide a visual narrative of foster children’s experiences, including issues of instability and permanence, loyalty to family, and aging out of the system, through an art installation using 3-D casting.

Everett Athorp of Klawock will design and carve a traditional Haida canoe.

Marian Call of Juneau will learn how to digitally master music from her computer, and create an EP of a half-dozen original songs using samples, loops, MIDI, and other digital effects.

Alanna DeRocchi of Anchorage will study the landscape and animals of Point Hope, as well as the nature of their life and death as part of the subsistence lifestyle, to inform the creation of clay sculptures for her 2018 solo exhibition at the Anchorage Museum, Collection: A Narrative on Sex, Death & Expectation.

Christy Tengs Fowler of Haines will hire musicians and vocalists to record 25 original songs and prepare them for publication. The songs will be part of a documentary of her life, Above the Bamboo Room, scheduled to premiere at the Chilkat Center for the Performing Arts in 2018.

Ellen Frankenstein of Sitka will attend a writing workshop and writer’s conference to explore new ways of shaping stories, and will enroll in a course with award-winning cinematographer Bob Elfstom to enhance her skill in the use of lighting in film.

Patt Garrett of McCarthy will complete a nine-year writing project on Kate Kennedy, a controversial McCarthy businesswoman during the early 20th century copper bonanza, contrasting her own experiences working in the male-dominated mining field with Kennedy’s.

Erin Gingrich of Anchorage, a carver, painter, and bead worker, will purchase tools that will allow her to participate in Alaska’s artistic community at a professional level.

Lily Hope of Juneau will travel to British Columbia to continue her study of Chilkat weaving following the loss of her mother, who was her mentor, in 2016. She will study Chilkat robes at the Vancouver Museum of Anthropology and enroll in a five-day class with a master weaver.

Gail Jackson of Anchorage will purchase two gongs and train with a master to further her knowledge and expand her skill as a percussionist. She will also attend an intensive course with the Deep Listening Institute to explore listening as it relates to sound. These efforts will culminate in Sound Immersion, an upcoming performance in 2018.

Wendy Langton of Fairbanks will shadow two world-renowned dance companies – Ailey II and the Royal Danish Ballet – to study the creation, setting and rehearsal of contemporary choreography.

Mary Loewen of Kodiak will enroll in hip-hop dance workshops to further her ability in the form and enable her to develop curriculum and choreography in hip-hop movement. She plans to form a hip-hop dance collective and help students use movement to facilitate emotional communication and express messages about social ideas.

Mangyepsa Gyipaayg (Kandi McGilton) of Metlakatla will continue her apprenticeship with a master weaver in the endangered traditional Annette Island style of Tsimshian basketry. She will work on replicating items now housed in private collections and museums across the state for a permanent display in the community.

Amy Meissner of Anchorage will complete work on her solo exhibit, Inheritance: makers. memory. myth., scheduled to display at the Anchorage Museum and the Alaska State Museum in 2018. The exhibit is a cultural narrative of the literal, physical, and emotional work of women, told through a collection of vintage cloths from around the world.

Evan Phillips of Anchorage will write and record new songs capturing Alaska’s changing seasons. The album, which Phillips will mix in his home studio before it is professionally mastered, will incorporate sounds of nature recorded from his family cabin in Ninilchik.

Jessica Meadowlark Plachta of Haines will travel to Eastern Washington for interviews to contribute to her memoir of growing up with “an idealistic group of counter-culture nature freaks” who planted trees for the U.S. Forest Service.

Sandy Stolle of Seward will design and build an adjustable easel that will allow for exploration of different woodcarving methods. She will also explore new ways of adding color to carvings.

Karen Stomberg of Fairbanks will use drawings of six wild flowering plant species at three different historical periods – 1899, the mid-20th century and the present day – to explore ideas of continuity, change, and resilience. The completed drawings will be displayed at a solo exhibition of botanical art at the Fairbanks Centennial Center for the Arts in 2018.

Vanessa “Vee” Sweet of Shishmaref will complete Wild Woman, a four-minute, hand-drawn animated film, with visuals and a slam-poetry narrative that serve as a plea for inclusion, empathy and understanding of diversity.

Lily H. Tuzroyluke of Anchorage will complete her first historical novel, The Sanca. The story tells the tale of an Inupiaq family that survives the smallpox epidemic, only to struggle through the arrival of American commercial whaling in their village.

Miranda Weiss of Homer will begin work on her second book, on the topic of snow. Each chapter will use one of the writer’s snow-bound adventures to illuminate the effects of climate change on “this magical form of precipitation.”

Merna Wharton of Fairbanks will purchase animal pelts and other supplies needed to sew one adult and one child-sized Yup’ik parka. She will also create a website to document the process and serve as a tutorial on how to create the traditional garment.

Nathaniel Wilder of Anchorage will attend a workshop in visual storytelling and documentary photography to help shape a narrative arc for his ongoing project, a three-year documentation of the spring bowhead whale hunt in Point Hope.

Hannah Yoter of Anchorage will compose original Americana songs for her second full-length album with her eponymous Hannah Yoter Band.

Itzel Yarger-Zagal of Anchorage will complete a book of bilingual poems drawing upon her experiences emigrating from Mexico and the stories of other migrants in Anchorage.

About the Individual Artist Awards

In December 2003, the Rasmuson Foundation Board of Directors launched a multi-year initiative to invest in Alaska’s cultural and artistic community. The program awards grants to Alaskan artists to ensure the continuation of the state’s vibrant and diverse arts and culture community.

In 14 years, the Individual Artist Awards program has made 444 grants totaling $4 million directly to Alaskan artists. The grants allow recipients to pursue a variety of creative avenues, and give them time to focus on their work, explore educational opportunities, and upgrade and purchase equipment to help them grow as artists.

About the Foundation

Jenny Rasmuson with her son, Elmer, created the Rasmuson Foundation in May 1955 to honor her late husband E.A. Rasmuson. The Foundation is a catalyst to promote a better life for all Alaskans.