Shareholder Profiles

Artist & Business Spotlights

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Shareholder Spotlight: Gertrude Svarny

The land, beach, and sea that surrounds Unalaska have inspired and provided for makers for thousands of years. Gertrude Svarny, or Gert, grew up immersed in these elements until she was forced to leave.

Gert was one of nearly 900 Unangax that were evacuated off the island during World War II. When they came home, she and her family, like many others, had to rebuild. She met her husband on the island, started a family, and moved away, but Gert always knew that Unalaska was home.

After moving back to the island, and retiring with her late husband at 51 years of age, she began to make art. Walking on the beach one afternoon, Gert found whale bones. They were easy to work with, and with a melon baller, she created several pieces to sell at a craft fair. They sold out before it was over.

Today, Gert has works in private and public collections around the world. She has been honored with a number of awards and grants, including the Distinguished Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation, the Alaska Federation of Natives President’s Award, and a Governor’s Award for Alaska Native art, to name a few. In addition, Gert has been active in the Ounalashka community, where she served on the board for many years and was Interim President for the Corporation two times.

Gert works with a variety of materials, from local grasses and wood to soapstone hand-cut from a quarry in the Lower 48. Her inspiration is local though. “I am inspired by how we used to live,” said Gert. “Our stories, people and traditions.” This mindset is clear in her work, many of which are interpretations of traditional tales and activities.

In the Svarny family, art is a family affair. Her four daughters, two granddaughters, two sons, and niece are almost all involved in some form of personal expression, such as painting, weaving, writing, and dance. They were represented in Gert’s recent show at the Anchorage Museum – Gertrud Svarny: Ukuqanaadan. Alongside her carving, weaving and other items are paintings and drawings done by other Svarnys. “Ukuqanaadan is my first large-scale show,” Gert shared. “I did it because I wanted to inspire my family, and others that are interested in their cultures and the arts.”

Gert loves to work in multiple mediums – weaving, sewing, carving painting and jewelry making – but sculpting is her favorite. “It is very satisfying to create something that you see in your head,” she said. It was also thrilling for her to see so much of her work in one place, at the opening of Ukuqanaadan, which her family helped envision. Many of them were also present at the show. Gert is particularly proud of several pieces, including a sculpture of a bowhead whale with inlaid detail.

On the wall is a poem written for Gert. It wasn’t written by her or her family, but by a late family friend Jerah Chadwick.

She carves the old bone; down to the shine, to the shapes. Music takes her mind, its pulse and pull: In her hands. Bone recalls whale; breaking the surface, the flensing. The feast, figures motionless, as if for the moment. Only, stalking the verge of song. To the measures of her people’s past she makes the beached bones dance.”

Gert shared that she still has so many ideas, many of them she has created, but many more are still waiting to get out. With so many accomplishments behind her and new ideas on the horizon, Gert will continue to make the beached bones dance for as long as she can.