The Rasmuson Foundation has recognized Unalaska's Gert Svarny as its Distinguished Artist of 2017. The award comes with a $40,000 grant so the 87-year-old sculptor can continue developing her craft.
In Gert Svarny’s living room, tucked safely between a cushy armchair and a window looking out on the beach, sits one of her most recent sculptures.
“Her name is Little Feather," says Svarny. "In Unangam Tunuu, it’s Huqdun Angunaqdaayulu.”
Little Feather is a young girl, carved from blue-grey soapstone. She’s wearing a traditional Unangan dress, trimmed with deep red ochre, and her hair is tied back in a long braid.
“She’s carrying a bag of ivory fish," says Svarny. "She’s saying, ‘Mama! Mama! We’re going to eat tonight!”
The little girl and her fish are in good company in Svarny’s home, surrounded by all kinds of artwork.
Finely woven grass baskets that fit in the palm of your hand. Expressive wooden masks that depict hunters hard at work. And long-billed visors that celebrate the style of traditional Aleutian kayakers, warding the sun and spray from their eyes.
“I think my inspiration comes from my people," says Svarny. "They’re in my thoughts all the time.”
But Svarny hasn’t always translated those thoughts into creative endeavors. She got into art later in life.
"I was 50," she says. "Fifty-one or 52. Somewhere in there.”
Art wasn’t on Svarny's agenda, growing up in Unalaska in the 1930s. She spent her childhood outside, exploring the island with her three brothers and three sisters.
“We always tried to get away from mom because she’d make us do chores," Svarny laughs.
Then life changed when she was 12 years old. It was World War II, and the Unangan people were forced to evacuate their region.
Svarny's family was interned in southeast Alaska. Except for her father, who wasn’t Unangan and had to stay behind. She doesn’t talk much about that part of her life.
“Had good times and bad times," she says. "Always homesick.”
When Svarny eventually returned to Unalaska, she had a husband and four daughters. They moved into the same house she grew up in. And one day, the art came to her.
“I found some bones on the beach and decided to see if I could do anything with them,” she says.
Svarny sat at her kitchen table with a melon baller and an X-Acto knife. She'd never taken a class, but she was able to shape one bone into a mask and the other into a small figure.
“I just tried it,” she says.
More than that, she loved it. She loved handling the materials. She loved bringing her ideas to life. And she loved the way sculpting brightened her mood on a bad day.
But that doesn’t mean she felt confident in her work. Not right away.
“There have been many times I’ve doubted myself, of course," says Svarny. "I’d think, ‘Are you an artist? Can you call yourself an artist?’”
It’s been almost 40 years since she shaped those first pieces of bone, and she’s come to think of herself as a sculptor.
“But I’ve been thinking lately, “Boy, those rocks are getting heavy. Maybe I should start painting!’”
All jokes aside, Svarny says she’s found her identity as an artist. Now, she wants to help other Unangan creatives do the same.
“I’ve always thought that so many of our people are artistically inclined," she says. "But sometimes life gets in the way and they never pursue what they want to do.”
Svarny teaches art to students at Unalaska’s Camp Qungaayux, and she’s brought up her own children and grandchildren with a love for the arts.
“My granddaughter Laresa and I were talking, and we were saying that we had so many ideas we wanted to do," says Svarny. "I said, ‘Laresa, I will never finish all my ideas. I’ll die before I finish all the things that I want to get done.'"
But she’s not stopping anytime soon. In fact, Svarny says this time in her life may just be the most creative.
“I love doing it," she says. "When I’m working, I’m happy.”