Gert Svarny

2017 Distinguished ArtistFolk & Traditional Arts

About the artist

Gert Svarny is a Unangan artist, culture bearer, teacher and leader. She enjoys working with fragments of home, living things and earth and says the materials reveal themselves to her as she shapes, grinds and paints them. Her carvings are usually made from soapstone and may take months to create.

Distinguished Artist Award

Gert Svarny was just 12 when she was evacuated from her hometown of Unalaska during World War II and interned along with nearly 900 other Unangax (Aleut) people in Southeast Alaska. Those who survived and returned home found their communities ransacked and burned. In the documentary film “The Aleut Story,” Svarny comments, “We lost lots of elders. I think that’s why our culture just stood still for a long time.”

Svarny painted when she was young, but it wasn’t until age 51 that she dedicated her life to her art. Although she is primarily known for her intricate ivory and soapstone sculptures, Svarny is also a respected bentwood artist and weaver. Her inspiration comes from her Unangan culture, traditions and the beautiful environment. Hunting and gathering helped her ancestors survive; fishing and berry picking help quell her gathering instincts.

Through her work and teachings, Svarny has helped to perpetuate Unangan art and culture. In 2008, she received the Governor’s Award for Native Arts. She has been a director of the Institute of Alaska Native Arts and a member of the Board of Regents of the Institute of American Indian Arts. She also served for many years on the Aleutian Arts Council. She was instrumental in preserving Unangan culture classes in the Unalaska schools. As a culture bearer for Camp Qungaayux, Unalaska’s annual culture camp, she taught classes in Unangan weaving and design. Her work is housed in numerous permanent collections, including the Southern Plains Indian Museum, the Anchorage Museum, the Alaska State Museum, and the University of Alaska Museum of the North. 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.

Since receiving it, Svarny has been working with her family of artists to create a show that will open in September of 2018 at the Anchorage Museum called “Ukuqanaadan Visions: The world of Gert Svarny’s visions.” Daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great grandchildren and sons-in-law will be participating in a retrospective of old and new works. Svarny says it’s “a once in a lifetime bonus” to work with the people she has influenced the most — and who have in turn influenced her. She hopes to be able to portray her history, culture, and artistic traditions through both traditional and contemporary techniques.

In 2017 Svarny was recognized with the Alaska Federation of Natives Culture Bearer award.

The path to bone deep

The Foundation partnered with 49 Writers, a literary nonprofit, to profile Individual Artist Award recipients from 2017 and 2018.

Profile by Dawnell Smith

After many long days of preparing wood, stone and bone sculptures for an art show in Anchorage, Gertrude Svarny took a break — a vacation, she called it — to get some work done.

She returned to Unalaska with her daughter, Wendy. The blueberries looked plump and ready, she said. During her time off, she mowed the lawn, cleaned the house, prepared for winter, and picked berries.

“My ideas are bothering me while I’m on vacation,” Svarny admitted, ”but I’m going to ignore them for a while.”

The act of imagining what to make next threads through her daily life whether she wants it to or not, but it does not define her purpose as much as her path — a journey that always draws her home to Unalaska, the house where she grew up, her Unangan way of life.

Many people now know Svarny as an artist and culture bearer, and a teacher, leader and guide who sits on boards and committees. In 2017, she received a Distinguished Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation and an Alaska Federation of Natives President’s Award for her work in the arts.

Yet when she speaks of making art, she talks of dust, the weight of stone, the grinding of ochre, the shaving of whalebone.

She talks about how the work feels in her body, how it reveals itself as she shapes and turns the stone.

Going back to find forward

Svarny has no shortage of ideas, but at 88, she knows she must act on some, let go of others. She also knows what she does and doesn’t like.

She likes working with the fragments of home, living things and earth — stone, bone, wood, grass and fur. She likes that she can express an idea into something she finds on the beach. She likes that sometimes what she finds on the beach inspires the idea.

She likes her robotic vacuum, too.

No, she loves her robotic vacuum.

She is less fond of doing interviews. She has told her story of becoming a working artist at the age of 51 many times. She has recounted how she picked up a bone, made something of it, and hatched an art career.

Truth is, though, that she always loved creating things, even when very young. It’s just that the work of tending children and making a life required her attention, labor and time. She still managed to carve out moments to create.

Her husband Sam saw that she liked to paint and kept her in supplies. He joined her in her path just as she joined him.

The two married in Unalaska in 1950 when she was 20 years old. An Army man for decades, Sam’s work meant moving around a bit. They lived in Seattle for a while and later in Anchorage, where he opened a business servicing radiological equipment for hospitals.

They visited Unalaska when they could. After one of those trips, she recounted, she said to him, “Let’s move back to Unalaska.”

He understood the pull. They moved into her childhood home in 1980.

The first homecoming

Svarny called her upbringing in Alaska a good one. They spent time outside playing, doing chores, picking berries. They knew their way.

Then the bombings came and 900 Unangax̂ people were evacuated to an internment camp in Southeast Alaska during World War II.

Svarny recalled the excitement she and other children felt when stepping on the steam ship leaving the island. She recalled, too, the thrill of going home after the war ended.

Those who returned found their homes burned and looted, possessions destroyed, and friends and loved ones lost to time, distance, grief and death. It was difficult for people to hold onto their language and traditions when severed from family and elders.

Many decades later, after moving back to the island with Sam, Svarny picked up that beach bone that really turned her into an artist at 51. She fashioned it into figures with a utility knife and melon baller. People admired and bought them.

“I have to admit that what kind of spurred me on was the cost of living up here,” she explained. “I decided that I could make some things and help bring in more money.”

Steadily, she kept making things, sending them to buyers, showing them at art exhibits, selecting more materials, and impressing her ideas into wood, bone and stone. Always, she said, “When I am working, I am thinking of my culture.”

Bone deep

Before she took up carving, Svarny taught herself to weave with the help of a book. She was 48. She said her daughters were disappointed that she couldn’t weave, so she learned. “I’m a middle-of-the-road weaver,” she said.

She comes from a family of makers who support each other’s work. Her parents and grandparents made boats, clothes, baskets and tools. Her children and grandchildren are accomplished artists.

Her husband, Sam, would fix the equipment, make the boxes for sending art work, and help order, track and move materials and art.

“He fixed me up with a nice studio, one room for dirty stone, another room for whatever,” she said. “He was a great part of my work. My bookkeeper, my cook, he ordered my materials.”

After her career took off, she and her daughter, Wendy, bought Sam a boat with money they had made selling art. Svarny lost Sam in 2014 after 64 years together.

Svarny spent many days on the water with him. On one trip, she found a piece of volcanic pumice rounded by the river. Now it forms the head of a sculptural piece called “People of Makushin” with two faces, an ochre headband with feathers, timeless expressions — another fragment of earth transformed by water, time and her hands.

When her vacation ends, Svarny will return to her tools and dust. She cannot work the long hours she used to, but the ideas still come. She has other pieces in mind, other figures to pull from bone deep.

Writer Dawnell Smith does communications work for a public interest law firm and commits nights and weekends to trying to keep a local bookstore café alive. She has worked as a news and arts reporter and continues to freelance. 

Artwork by Gert Svarny

This art was purchased through the Alaska Art Fund managed by Museums Alaska.