Noted Alaskan sculptor, Karen Olanna, creates mystical native Eskimo inspired sculptures from indigenous Alaskan caribou antlers, muskox horns and whalebones, and from ancient Alaskan wooly mammoth bones, which date back thousands of years. She creates both animal forms and human figures from these natural materials, which she and her husband, Bryan Weyauvanna gather from the tundra and beaches west of Nome.
Karen first began painting and exhibiting her work, during her high school days in Seattle, Washington. After high school, she traveled to Europe and apprenticed in wood relief carving in Norway, then continued her art studies at the Native Carving shop at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.
Her work explores the mystical essence of subjects ranging from Greek goddesses to abstract intrepertations of birds, animals and humans. She began incorporating indigenous materials into her sculptures, influenced by the work of her late husband, Melvin Olanna, who was a well known native Alaskan sculptor.
Karen said she has been inspired, “... by shamatic transformational themes of the spirit world from traditional Eskimo art - having studied the work of Eskimo carvers for almost 30 years. ” Her work has also been influenced by Carl Jung’s analytical psychology. She said she has also been inspired by Greek legends - which she finds fascinating, and much of her work represents Alaskan versions of a Greek myths. For example, she explained, “ ...instead of a Pegasus with a Centaur, my sculpture might be a caribou person or a goddess that merges with an animal spirit. “
She provided a glimpse into her creative process, when she noted that, “ I have antlers laying all around my studio and sometimes out of the corner of my eye, in a flash, I will see an image and get a subliminal inspiration, which I then must apply logic to in order to figure out how I can actually create a piece. I have to determine how I will proportion the antler and shape it to fit the idea.”
Karen says she uses tools such as a band saw and a rotary grinder to carve her sculptures, plus very fine files and, “ lots of sand paper. “ She said she likes the rich colors found in antlers and other natural animal materials she works with and finds their shapes fascinating. She trys to retain much of the natural shapes in many of her pieces. She also incorporates inlaid accents of fossilized mammoth ivory in some pieces. She explained that the process of sculpturing a piece requires working it over and over to shape and blend the forms. She said she sometimes works on a piece over time, “...coming back again and again to work on it.” She added, “You can’t change just one detail, when you are reworking a carving - you have keep working around and around so that the forms flow one into another.” She also casts bronze sculptures, working from plaster molds. Many of Karen’s sculptures incorporate multiple animal and human images which blend together.
Karen’s work is currently exhibited at: Boreal Traditions in Anchorage, Alaska; The Alaska House, Fairbanks, Alaska; Images of the North in San Fransisco, California; Sitka Rose in Sitka, Alaska; and the Eyes on Earth Fine Art Gallery in Longmont, Colorado.
Karen's work was recently featured in a story on www.coloradomagazineonline.com.
Karen’s sculpture studio is in Nome, Alaska, where she lives with her husband, Bryan and their 7-year old son, Charlie. Karen also has three grown children, whose father was Melvin Olanna.