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The art in vulnerability

[lightbox link=”https://www.ciri.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Gretchen-Sagan.jpg” thumb=”https://www.ciri.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Gretchen-Sagan-300×300.jpg” width=”300″ align=”left” title=”Gretchen Sagan” frame=”true” icon=”image” caption=”Gretchen Sagan”]Imagine a seal slicing through frigid water, climbing through fathoms toward a hole in the ice. Just before he breaks the surface to take a breath:  This is the moment that interests CIRI shareholder Gretchen Sagan (Iñupiaq).

“It’s an extreme case of vulnerability – the seal could be harpooned or swatted by a polar bear – but coming up for air is still essential to its survival,” Sagan describes.

Her latest collection of paintings, a series she calls “Coming Up for Air,” explores those moments of vulnerability that we experience when we transition from one situation to the next. She completed the series while serving as an artist-in-residence at the Santa Fe Art Institute – a residency that was made possible by the new Rasmuson Foundation Artist Residency Program.

In “Coming Up for Air,” Gretchen worked in acrylics on birch panels, and used simple forms, lines and voids to evoke landscapes and sea life. “My Native heritage is intrinsic to my work,” she says. “It defines how I see the world. I’m inspired by our Native sense of direction, perception, distance and how we cross real and imaginary lines.”

Gretchen is keenly aware of how we make ourselves vulnerable through travel. Having grown up in Anchorage, she attended college in Estonia as a young woman to gain a classical European art education. “I was the only American, the only Alaska Native,” she recalls. “I was very different from the onset, so I felt like I had to work harder and prove myself to gain acceptance. It was a great experience.”

Scholarships from The CIRI Foundation (TCF) helped fund Gretchen’s bachelor of fine arts degree from the Estonian Art Academy in Estonia; for two summers, she gave back by working as a TCF intern, helping other shareholders and descendants apply for scholarships. “I was fortunate to be a TCF award recipient,” Gretchen shares. “I’m indebted to CIRI for supporting my education and my profession.”

Later, in 2004 when then CIRI president and CEO Carl Marrs retired, Gretchen was given the opportunity to paint his portrait, which hangs in the CIRI Building today alongside the portraits of other past CIRI presidents.

That portrait was a small step outside of Gretchen’s comfort zone; her usual work is abstract, creating impressions or evoking emotions, rather than representing real objects or figures.

“Some people might see my work and say, ‘I don’t get it,’” she explains. “But if people connect with it or feel something about it, that’s what I care about.”

Her residency culminated in April with a show at the South Bay Contemporary Gallery in California. This month, from Sept. 5 through Sept. 28, Gretchen’s “Coming Up for Air” collection appears at Anchorage’s Alaska Humanities Forum during the Humanities and Art Series. Visit www.saganart.com to learn more about Gretchen and to view some of her work.