When dinner is the show

Student artist found inspiration in her museum job

Kristen Olson in museum's collections

Angela Linn remembers the moment Kirsten Olson first saw the story knife collection at the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

“It was just like this light went on,” said Linn, the museum’s ethnology and history collection manager. “She was like, ‘What are those things? Wow!”

That’s not an unusual reaction to the decorated utensils used by Yup'ik girls to draw in dirt or snow, Linn said — “they’re so beautiful and they’re so unique, everybody can re­late to them in some way.” Linn remembers the moment, though, because Olson didn’t stop at “Wow!”

Olson, then a graduate student in art, started to explore the Yupik decorative styles in her own work with ceramics. Eventually, the exploration culminated in a memorable, insightful thesis project featuring an elegant sit-down dinner served on Olson’s decorated ceramic dishes in the museum lobby.

Linn attended the dinner and, months later, still marvels at the event.

“It was such an intimate thing and the food was great and conversation awesome, but the pottery was just incredible,” Linn recalled. “It was so beautiful. We were just like ‘I can’t believe she made this with her hands.’”

Olson began stewing over her ideas in the museum basement after securing a summer job with Linn in 2012.

“That was just amazing,” Olson said of working with Linn. “She was really the one who kept feeding the anthropology side of my work.”

Originally from Pennyslvania, Olson had earned an undergraduate degree in anthropology and a minor in art from Juniata College in Huntingdon. While there, she studied the Inuit culture and art from Cape Dorset on Baffin Island in northern Canada. Seeking out a graduate school, she said, “I decided ‘Why not Alaska?’”

In fall 2011, she began a master’s program in anthropology at UAF, but she found herself a little homesick.

“Fairbanks is so very different from Pennsylvania, and I needed something that was like home, and the ceramics studio became that for me,” she said. She eventually switched her master’s program from anthropology to art.

However, when she began working at the museum the next summer, those interests began to overlap again. Linn encouraged the merger.

“She was very excited and said feel free to use the collection at your will,” Olson said. “She pretty much kind of let me have at it downstairs.”

Linn said Olson’s talent, enthusiasm and curiosity impressed her from the start.

People at the table

To preserve objects, the collections employees must build boxes or “archival enclosures.”

“I saw she had a natural affinity for doing that. She just went to town and sort of revolutionized the way that we make these enclosures for our objects,” Linn said. “She was making these incredible, almost origami-like enclosures.”

Olson dug into a collection of World War II artifacts from Attu Island and developed considerable expertise on the battles fought by the U.S. and Japan in the Aleutian Islands. “She just threw herself into it, while going to school full time and while teaching for the art department,” Linn marveled.

When the story knives came out, Olson found her inspiration. “She started talking more about it and ‘Do we have any publications on those?’ and ‘What do you know about those?’ and ‘Can I take some more pictures of those pieces?’” Linn said.

For her thesis project, Olson created 16 dinner place settings of four pieces each, plus some additional ceramic dishes.

“The forms and line work of my ceramics reference the ethnographic material that has inspired me,” she wrote later in a blog post about the pieces, many of which bear scrimshaw-like decorations.

As she worked, though, Olson realized she didn’t want to simply display the dishes in an exhibit. She decided they should be used — in a dinner. She had read about something similar in Pennsylvania, where a museum sold tickets for a dinner and the people who attended became the exhibit for others to watch.

Bowl with food in it

In Fairbanks, she thought a dinner could illustrate her thoughts about handmade utilitarian objects. Each is uniquely marked first by the process of creation, but then each also transforms and gains meaning with use. A bowl, built to hold soup, also will end up holding memories, ideas, even fragments of a culture.

“There’s a continuation of stories and community with the objects,” Olson said. “What better way to present those objects than to have a dinner?”

She asked Linn if the museum might host such an event. “I was like, ‘I don’t know, but if you need someone to champion it, let me know,’” Linn said. “And it did take some convincing, because it’s not something we’ve ever done before.”

Olson, as a student employee, had been such an asset for the museum that Linn thought the museum should help her in return. “This is part of our job, to support students and see them through,” Linn said. “So I thought that it was really important that we step out of our comfort zone and support that student’s vision.”

Olson’s thesis was more than a dinner, of course. She also displayed her work in a traditional exhibit and had to present the pieces and her ideas about them to a committee. The inspiration that Olson drew from indigenous art in the museum’s collection raised some interesting questions about appropriate use, Linn noted. Linn wrote a paper on the topic earlier this year.

“I actually wrote about Kirsten’s project in my paper and how hers was different from some of these people who are copying exactly and actually really misappropriating that imagery and representing it as their own work,” Linn said.

Table setting

She sees Olson’s work as transformative.

“Artists are inspired by the world around them, and they don’t put labels on where it comes from,” Linn noted. “It all goes into this big bubble of inspiration, and how they pull those things down and recombine them and reimagine them and place them into these other contexts, that’s the artistic process.”

This fall, Olson, now 25, will begin a year-long adjunct faculty position teaching ceramics at Juniata College.

“She was just an ideal student and I’m so proud that she’s been able to go and get a ‘real job’ doing something that’s related to her training,” Linn said.

Olson credited Linn for much of her success.

She opened my eyes to so many things I didn’t know existed. I had so many silly questions, but she was great, ”Olson said.“I'm so grateful to Angie, the museum and the art department for all the opportunities I had.”