By Gretchen Wieman
From the tundra and the beaches west of Nome, artist Karen Olanna gathers indigenous materials – caribou antlers, whalebones, muskox horns, and even ancient wooly mammoth bones – as she begins each journey of creating Eskimo-inspired sculptures. Her mystical sculptures draw on symbolic meanings, the landscape and animals around her, and her own internal musings.
She works with a variety of mediums, including antler, horn, bronze casting, and wood block prints. Although she started out as a painter in high school, she then learned word relief carving in Norway and discovered she was far more interested in form than in color. Olanna attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks where her focus shifted entirely to sculpture and carving.
Although her sculptures appear to be effortless, her process is anything but. When beginning her swan sculpture, Olanna started with the head of a musk ox. "This is not for the squeamish," she says with a laugh. "I'm never quite sure what level of decomposition I'm going to get." Her first step is to remove as much of the scull bone as possible, and then use a large sander over the entire horn to minimize the roughness, without losing its character. "I like to be sensitive to the material," says Olanna. "Let horn be horn." After sanding, she starts carving to develop the form and detail of the finished piece, then begins hand filing, and finally returns to sanding again. Her final steps include adding a variety of finishes, such as oils, waxes, and buffing, as well as inlays to emphasize details.
One sculpture like the swans can take two weeks of single-minded, intense work. "I don't usually finish something all at once," Olanna explains. "Sanders and grinders are heavy, and it is hard work to use them. When I work on a piece I get emotionally invested in it, which is good because I need to be able to connect with my work, but makes it hard to step back and evaluate what I'm doing artistically. Something that looks good in the heat of the moment can look pretty bad later on. That is why it's good that the work is so physically demanding and exhausts me – it forces me to take a break and make better decisions once I've rested," says Olanna.
"Switching between mediums lets me balance different styles. Horn is more craftsmanship and hard work than creativity – the shape is restricted so I like to see how far I can push it, but a lot of the process is just dealing with the material. Working with plaster molds (for a bronze casting) is free of restrictions, and much more intense in the creative process because you are creating something out of thin air – you need to know what you want."
Through her work, Olanna feels a sense of history, a connection to age old traditions. She often works outside to escape the dust of the sanding process, and likes to think about the people before her who have sat in a similar location, creating beautiful carvings. "Sometimes I feel removed from modern mainstream movements because I'm the only person I know of working in materials like musk ox horn," says Olanna. "But some of the oldest artwork is made out of antler or horn. It is wonderful to think that I am continuing a tradition."
Although solitary in her choice of materials, Olanna considers her work to be part of the oceanic genre. "Ocean cultures are different from inland cultures when it comes to art," she says. "There is something about the water, the crashing waves, and the open vistas that affect me."
It is certainly easy to see the influence of the ocean in Olanna's work. Recently, she has been working on a series of mermaids, and draws on numerous myths and folkloric legends as elements to incorporate into her sculptures and woodblock prints. "Mermaids are almost universal to human nature. They are a symbol of the transformation myth, which speaks to people," says Olanna. "The mermaid's transformation allows her to deal with the sea, which represents the irrational forces in life that you can't control but must live with." Laughing, she adds, "If you don't have a little bit of mermaid in you, it's hard to deal with the uncontrollable in life." As an artist continuing to transform both herself and her work, it is safe to say that Olanna has more than a little bit of mermaid in her.