Artist Profile Story by Jamey Bradbury
For 22 years, Sandee Drabek taught children with significant learning disabilities. She quickly discovered that her students thrived when they were allowed to learn through all their senses. So when her class tackled a unit on Alaskan art, Sandee and her students got their hands dirty, learning together how to carve soapstone.
It wasn’t until she retired, though, that Sandee was able to concentrate on developing her craft. Around the same time, the then-director of the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak, where Sandee lives, invited her to study traditional Alutiiq stone oil lamps that had been discovered at archeological sites on the island. Sandee felt an instant connection.
“I’ve lived on Kodiak since I was 3, and my husband is Alaska Native, and our family has strong ties to the culture,” she says. “I’ve always loved rock, and I’ve always been drawn to many different cultures. The culture here, the land itself, the story and message these lamps have about the people who lived here for so long – that’s how I became bonded with the lamps. I make them to honor Alutiiq heritage.”
With unique access to the museum stacks and by closely studying ancient Alutiiq lamps, Sandee began to “replicate” decorative traditional oil lamps, using soapstone instead of the granite-like stone called tonalite that ancient Alaskans typically worked with. These lamps, which were historically used to highlight special occasions, are perfectly symmetrical, with beveled edges and basins that often contain whales, seals, bears or human figures.
To create the lamps, Sandee starts with a bandsaw, cutting large pieces of soapstone down to a size she can work with, then uses carving tools to form the fine details like the whiskers of an otter in the basin of the lamp. For the final stages of sanding and polishing, Sandee applies coat after coat of boiled linseed oil to each piece, producing a magical kind of transformation.
“When you first deal with it, it’s just a hunk of rock, and you get a gist of what the color might be,” she describes. “But once you apply the oil, it can change color from gray to a beautiful jade green, or gold. The surprise of color adds a whole other dimension to each lamp.”
Along with her carvings, Sandee’s paintings are also influenced by the surrounding plants and animals that warm her world. Her large wooden bowls and serving utensils are hand-painted with Alaskan motifs – from bear faces to florals. Colorful and functional, the sets have been popular as wedding gifts and for housewarmings. Her lamps and bowl sets are sold at the Alutiiq museum and in other galleries around the state, and online (sandstonestudiocreations.com). In addition to making original pieces, Sandee also works on commission, a process she finds both challenging and inspiring.
“Someone will ask me to carve a lamp in the shape of a loon,” she offers as an example, “and I won’t even know where to begin! But then you figure it out. Sometimes it takes someone asking you to stretch your limits because you might not go there yourself.”
Other times, Sandee lets the stone itself inspire her. The markings of a particular stone might remind her of a lion or a bear, but as she begins to carve, the stone itself seems to change, leading her to create something altogether different.
“The stone is going to tell you what it wants to do,” she explains. “It’s a real process of discovery.”
Her lamps aren’t simply decorative, Sandee adds. “I would say about two-thirds of the lamps I make are actually used – when someone has a birthday or anniversary, or if they’re worried or thinking about someone, people light the lamps as a message of unity. That’s very meaningful to me, that people use them as a touchstone.”
Sandee and her husband divide their time between Tuscon, Arizona, and their home on Kodiak Island overlooking Woman’s Bay. In addition to carving, she fishes, berry-picks, gardens and teaches the occasional workshop – anything to keep herself learning and growing.
“My true hope as a teacher was for my students to become lifelong learners," she says. “And I try to do the same thing.”