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 Melvin Olanna  (1941 - 1991)

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Lived/Active: Alaska      Known for: sculpture

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Ad Code: 4
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
Seated drummer
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Melvin Olanna, 1941-1991)

He was an Alaskan Native artist from Shishmaref, Alaska .  He grew up living a subsistence lifestyle in Ikpik, near Shishmaref.  He was born with one leg an inch and a half shorter than the other.  It became obvious to him that he would have to become successful with his hands, rather than his legs.  He also contracted tuberculosis at a very young age.  He spent a lot of time in and out of hospitals, and eventually was cured.  To pass the time in the hospital, Melvin would sketch drawings of animals.  Melvin’s father was a carver (sculptor) in Shishmaref, and taught Melvin how to carve.  In an interview, Melvin tells the story of how he pretended to be sick one Sunday so he could stay home from church and carve a piece of ivory he had found with his father’s tools.  He then sold the carving through his Uncle’s store for seventy-five cents.  He used the money to buy more carving material.  

Melvin continued to be interested in art and earned a fellowship to the American Indian Arts School in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  There he learned how to carve other materials such as marble and alabaster.  He also learned from other American Indian artists at the school. After New Mexico, he returned to Alaska and attended the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, enrolling in the newly formed Alaskan Native Arts Program.  He continued to learn sculpting, printmaking, and carving.  There he met another student, Karen Jenkins, whom he married.  The couple returned to Shishmaref and raised three children.  Melvin was now in the position of providing for his family through his art.  He learned to look at himself as being both an artist and a business person.  He needed to be closer to the fine art market so he could become better known.  The family decided to move part-time to Suquamish Indian Reservation in Washington.  Here Melvin could be closer to the larger art markets in Seattle, Juneau, and the West Coast.  The family, however, still lived part of the year in Shishmaref.

Melvin died of a heart attack at a young age in 1991 in Suquamish.  During his lifetime, he created many beautiful and artistic sculptures, carvings, and woodcut prints.  He has many sculptures in the museums around Alaska and many outdoor sculptures around Fairbanks. Melvin Olanna traveled around Alaska giving carving workshops and working to support the artistic development of young people in rural Alaska.  The Melvin Olanna Carving Center has been established in Shismaref to provide a well-equipped workshop for local artists.

Information provided by Irene Mahler.

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