Melvin Olanna

Melvin was born at the now abandoned village of Ikpik on the Bering Strait and later moved to Shishmaref.  As a boy he learned by observing the work of older men, carving small figures in walrus ivory.  Later he studied at the Institute for American Indian Arts, in Santa Fe, where he was taught and greatly influenced by Alan Houser.  He also studied under Ron Senungetuk at the Native Arts Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

As a contemporary artist he specialized in large stone and bronze sculptures, usually of abstract northern animals.  He was a prolific artist and his work is widely represented in major public and private collections.  Although the materials, technology and scale of his work changed over the years, it is significant that he usually chose to work with animals of Alaska, the foundation of the hunting culture of the Bering Strait.  He and his wife Karen split their year between the Seattle area, where they concentrated on their artwork, and Shishmaref where Melvin was a serious and skilled traditional hunter.  Melvin once told me: “when I am hunting my heart is full of joy, and I never get tired.”

Melvin leaves a number of people whom he loved very much: central to his life were his wife Karen and children Kyan, Tanya, and Brons.  His father Alfred lives in Shishmaref as do his brothers Harold and Daniel and sisters Anna, Cindy, Martha, and Lillian.  His brother Jacob lives in Nome, while sisters Mary in Seattle and Julia in Anchorage.  He used to say jokingly, “everyone here is my cousin,” and, in fact, he leaves about fifty cousins.

Mel’s generous spirit was obvious to those who knew him well.  He quietly paid unexpected bills for friends and relatives in need.  Several young people from Shishmaref have attended college with his encouragement and financial support.  As an artist he was always willing to share his expertise with interested young people.