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Erin Gingrich

Erin Gingrich of Anchorage is a woodcarver, painter and bead worker from a family of Iñupiaq and Koyukon Athabascan artists. She is making her own way, incorporating beads into carvings.


  • Project Award
  • Visual Arts

Carving: A Subtractive Process

Though Erin Gingrich comes from a family of Iñupiaq and Koyukon Athabascan artists, it wasn’t a given that she herself would become an artist. “I got here my own way. I had to do something different. That’s the primary thing.” In every way, she’s close to her family, including proximity — her parents live next door — but Gingrich also is fiercely independent.

Her grandmother, Trudy Kelliher, is Koyukon Athabascan. “Grandma makes all these beautiful things — earrings, ornaments, wallets, bracelets — and a porcupine quill choker which she made for me.” Gingrich’s mother, Carla Gingrich, sews coveted atikłuk (cloth parkas). Her aunt, Sonya Kelliher-Combs, is an accomplished contemporary artist.

At the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), Gingrich started out studying wildlife biology, still a passion she might chase. “It’s all related.” Then she took a carving class with Da-ka-xeen Mehner, a Tlingit/N’ishga artist who directs the Native Art Center at UAF. She liked the challenge. “Carving is so different; it’s a subtractive process. You have to think about it completely differently. Da-ka saw my intention.”

Before long, carving started making sense to Gingrich, though it too was not inevitable. “Carving seemed masculine,” says Gingrich, “since (Native) women are always sewing.” Gingrich’s Iñupiaq name is Ivalu, which means thread. At UAF, she studied with Kathleen Carlo-Kendall, a Koyukon Athabascan artist and one of the first woman carvers among a long line of men. Gingrich integrated beading into her carving as a natural way of combining the masculine with the feminine. To keep balance, every artist has different parts. Part of making art is reconciling them.

Gingrich loved college. On her first day, at freshmen orientation, she found love. Her boyfriend is an engineer. His family is from Naknek. “Our ancestors were all renaissance Natives. They were all scientists, artists, engineers (perhaps without the formal degrees). They all had multiple skills, in order to survive.”

Gingrich grew up in Anchorage, was homeschooled, and didn’t start fishing until college. Now, “it’s so essential, so important, to have fish to eat all winter. With anything I portray — fish, ptarmigan, caribou — I have a personal, physical experience,” she says.

“A subsistence lifestyle feeds my work and feeds me, as it fed my ancestors.” To continue harvesting her food is one of her life goals. To feed herself, Gingrich is learning how to navigate her long list of allergies. “I’m learning what works for me. Ptarmigan meat is rich and dark, like liver. And musk oxen is soooo good.”

Subsistence is hard work. “The reality of subsistence is that it’s messy,” says Gingrich. “It’s bloody and beautiful.” The beads dangling from her carved and painted headless fish bodies represent bloody, oozy slime. Why headless? “I don’t eat (fish) heads, but I’d like to start.”

Gingrich is allergic to alder and cedar, so she carves with basswood, a soft wood that comes from a linden tree. “It’s been used for sculpture since the Middle Ages. It’s like driftwood but without the sand,” she says.

“People like to think large, especially with sculpture, but everything has value, even if it’s small,” says Gingrich. With her small frame and gamine haircut, she appears younger than 28. “It gets to me a little bit to look young. My little siblings are all bigger than me.” Even her Koyukon name is delicate. Ggaadimits means butterfly — delicate, but with transformative powers.

“I’m attracted to small spaces and things,” Gingrich says as she points to multiple smelt and ptarmigan sculptures. “Think of historical artifacts, pocket-size, that nomadic people could travel with.” Her art is a way of preserving and honoring the gifts gathered from the land.

As an artist, Gingrich says, “More than making something, you have to find that thing that moves you deeply. And carving is what I feel is most me. It’s become a big part of me, even physically. I have a carving arm.”

Carol Richards is an Iñupiaq writer and designer. Her nonfiction writing has appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review and Best Creative Nonfiction (Volume 2) and was selected as a notable essay in Best American Essays.

Image credits - All gallery images courtesy of artist. Artist portrait by Carol Richards. Writer portrait courtesy of the writer.