Rural Alaska

An Utqiaġvik artist is turning found beach artifacts into collages highlighting Iñupiaq culture

Sea glass collage by Utqiaġvik  artist

UTQIAĠVIK — Bertha Kanayurak has been taking walks and collecting sea glass on the beach in Utqiaġvik since she was young.

Over the years, the colorful pieces of weathered glass started piling up in her house, located three blocks from the ocean. Now, at 66, she creates collages from the artifacts she’s found during her beach walks, and she uses her art to share her culture.

“I’ve been collecting pretty much all my life: Everything just started mounting up every summer, and it just got to be so much that I finally decided to do something with them,” she said. “Each piece I’ve done, I’ve seen and experienced in my lifetime.”

For about a year and a half, Kanayurak has been creating collages that depict everything from flower bouquets to scenes of Eskimo dancing, from whalers in boats to Arctic animals. She said she decided to add her unique perspective to the medium after seeing sea glass collages elsewhere.

“It gave me an idea that I can do something like that with my culture,” she said.

Members of the public seem to enjoy Kanayurak’s artistic vision.

“Each piece has a story, a full-blown story of life, both past and present, and if you look at one, you will know exactly what the story is,” Kivalina resident Janet Mitchell said. “She has an amazing imagination and art skills. … You know exactly what is happening in every piece and you can feel the emotion.”

Sea glass collage by Utqiaġvik  artist

Mitchell said that every beach with storm surges carries sea glass and unexpected objects that have washed into the sea, but Utqiaġvik is special because it’s on top of the world.

“Bertha Kanayurak is one of the residents who walk the beach to comb the sand for treasures,” Mitchell said, “and treasures she has found.”

Kanayurak uses sea glass, whale bones, ivory pieces and baleen to create her collages. The shape of the pieces she finds dictates what the art will look like.

“I pick up a piece, I look at a piece and I say, ‘Oh my God, I know what I can do with this,’” she said.

[Sharing traditional knowledge, Inupiat hunters advance whale science]

Most of the walks are a solitary pleasure for Kanayurak, when summer weather sets in and when she has no need to be cautious of snow, ice or polar bears.

“Most of the time I like to walk solo,” she said. “I’ll hum, I’ll sing gospel songs and walk and walk. Sometimes I won’t know how long I walk. Before I know it, it’ll be like, couple hours or three hours until I can’t walk anymore.”

As a child, Kanayurak always enjoyed playing at the beach, but she didn’t start collecting sea glass until she was about 14.

“A few years ago, I finally separated all the colors in each box, and that makes my work much easier,” she said. “Now that I’m 66, I don’t have much to do, I’m sitting at home. So finally I decided to do something with it.”

​​Sea glass collage by Utqiaġvik  artist

To depict the ground, the artist sometimes puts pebbles in the bottom of the glass frame. Then she glues down other elements to create the scene and adds a colored sheet of paper to the back of the collage.

For her flower-themed art, Kanayurak travels away from Utqiaġvik — sometimes going as far as 60 miles out on an ice road toward Prudhoe Bay — to collect willow tree branches. She puts them in boiling water and flattens them out before gluing.

“I really need to go find more willows this spring,” she said.

Her artwork has grown more popular after the success of one of her biggest pieces, called “The Three Gray Whales.” It’s inspired by the rescue of three whales that were trapped in ice near Utqiaġvik in 1988. The rescue involved regional, national and international efforts, and Kanayurak’s collage shows a ship, a sled and hunters surrounding three big flippers in the center.

She sold the collage to the Iñupiaq Heritage Center, which in turn sold it for $2,000.

“From then on,” she said, “everything just took off.”

HORIZONTAL white space sea glass collage in Utqiaġvik

Now, her art sells quickly. She starts by posting each new piece on Facebook, and people from across the country respond quickly to order them. She’s shipped her work to Washington, Ohio and Wisconsin, in addition to places in state such as Fairbanks, Anchorage and all over the North Slope.

Kanayurak makes sure to pack up the collages securely before shipping them to customers. Each piece reflects hours of work: On top of the time needed to collect and prepare materials, creating the collage itself can take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks. For example, “The Three Gray Whales” took her a couple of weeks to make.

“I put that sea glass out there, and it’s like doing a puzzle,” she said. “You got to make sure that every piece fits.”

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.