The Governor's Arts and Humanities Awards is an annual partnership between the Alaska Humanities Forum, the Alaska State Council on the Arts, the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation, and the Office of the Governor to recognize and honor noteworthy contributions to the arts and humanities in Alaska.
Each year, these partners select awardees in several distinct categories, based on nominations submitted by the public.
Congratulations to the 2021 awardees for their achievements in the Arts and Humanities!
Distinguished Service to the Humanities | Community: Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository, Kodiak
Since 1987, when the Kodiak Area Native Association’s Culture and Heritage Division (KANA) decided to support programs to collect and share the Alutiiq arts, language, and history, the goal was to open a central repository, gathering place, and learning center focused on the Alutiiq people. The resulting organization, the Alutiiq Museum, should be celebrated as a model for any organization that wants to collect and share cultural knowledge and artifacts. The Alutiiq Museum’s work spans the globe, but the organization has a deep commitment to the Kodiak Archipelago—the museum’s home and the geographic center of the Alutiiq world. The staff works diligently to involve people of all heritages in educational programming and original research through archaeological studies, language documentation, and collections investigations. By engaging everyone in the celebration of Alutiiq heritage, the museum reduces cultural isolation, reawakens cultural traditions, builds intergenerational ties that broaden cultural understanding, and creates a welcoming environment for discovery.
Distinguished Service to the Humanities | Education: Jesse Hensel, Fairbanks
Over the course of a school year at Pearl Creek Elementary School, Jesse Hensel carefully created a foundation
for his students’ lifelong appreciation for Alaska Native culture, their own local and global community, and the
natural place they call home. Hensel has respectfully worked for years to connect his classes with an Elder
group at Fairbanks Native Association (FNA). Meeting with Elders almost monthly, introduced his students to
many cultural, social, and natural aspects of Alaska. This time spent has enriched children’s lives while firmly
connecting them to the peoples and place around him. Hensel is creating a model of community centered
schools; schools designed to connect and strengthen communities in ways not measured on standardized tests.
Distinguished Service to the Humanities | Education: Roy Agloinga, Anchorage and Natchirsvik (White Mountain)
Growing up in Natchirsvik (also known as White Mountain), Roy Agloinga was one of the last kids to spend time around native speakers of Iġałuik. The dialect is an offshoot of Qawairaq Inupiaq. Agloinga never left his language behind. In recent years, he has worked with team members on the Qawiaraq Language Preservation Project to preserve the language’s dialects and make it accessible to current and future generations. Agloinga and other team members spent hours with elders asking them to detail Qawairaq words. There is now an audio and written record of the language that will help make it accessible for generations to come. Agloinga is the co-author of the Qawiaraq Iġałuik Inupiat Dictionary.
Alaska Native Arts: Vera Starbard, Anchorage
Vera Starbard, T’set Kwei, is a Tlingit and Dena’ina writer and editor. She is Playwright-in-Residence at
Perseverance Theatre through the Andrew W. Mellon National Playwright Residency Program and Editor of
First Alaskans Magazine. Starbard is also a writer for the PBS Kids children’s program “Molly of Denali,” which
won a Peabody Award in 2020. She has won numerous local, statewide and national individual writing and
editing awards, including the Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Award and Alaska Literary Award.
Starbard currently serves on the KTOO Board of Directors, HowlRound Theatre Commons Advisory Council, and
the Kachemak Bay Writer's Conference Board. Her full-length play “Our Voices Will Be Heard” premiered at
Perseverance Theatre in 2016. It was then published in the textbook “Contemporary Plays by Women of Color”
in 2017, and turned into a one-hour radio adaptation that aired nationwide in 2018. Starbard currently lives with
her husband Joe Bedard (Inupiaq/Yup’ik/Cree) on the Dena'ina land around Dgheyaytnu - colonially called
Arts Advocacy: Reyne Athanas, Bethel
Reyne Athanas is a long time Bethel, Alaska resident, having moved from Oregon in 1973 to teach art in the schools. Athanas taught all forms of art at all three Bethel schools, including Kilbuck, Mikellnguut Elitnaurvit, and Bethel High School; and was an instructor at UAF Kuskokwim Campus for ceramics, fiber arts, printmaking, and watercolor. Athanas received her MFA in Ceramics from University of Puget Sound and has had pieces in the Anchorage Museum shows and at galleries in Alaska and around the country. A member of Alaska State Council on the Arts, Bethel Council on the Arts, and Kuskokwim Art Guild, Athanas has received many awards and was inducted into the Alaska Women's Hall of Fame. Athanas continues to create art and advocate for the arts for everyone.
Arts Education: Alaska Arts Education Consortium
The Alaska Arts Education Consortium advances teaching and learning in and through the arts for all of Alaska’s
children. The non-profit was formed in 2003 and since then has held over 50 1-2 week teacher trainings and has
trained over 1200 Alaskan teachers. School districts are key partners, along with other arts and cultural
organizations. Each year we work with local districts and cultural organizations to present these trainings.
In 2022 they will be held in Sitka, Ketchikan, Anchorage, and Nome. Led by Executive Director Barbara Short, the
consortium’s strong, hard-working board values arts in education and represents all five regions of Alaska:
Peggy Azuyak, Annie Calkins, Robin Child, Jessica Christianson, Laura Forbes, Debbie Harris, Joan Hornig,
Suzzuk Huntington, Hannah Johnston, Jeanne Kitayama, Nita Rearden, Katy Ritter, Kim Sweeny, Anna Widman,
and Conrad Woodhead.
Individual Artist Award: Asia Freeman
Born in Mexico, Asia Freeman was raised in Alaska, and after graduation from Homer High School, she received a Bachelor’s of Art at Yale. After time off from college to volunteer in Costa Rica, explore Mexico and the Amazon, and California, she returned to Yale, where she minored in Religious Studies and majored in Studio Art. She studied drawing, photography, sculpture, and painting with well-recognized mentors, but her greatest teacher was her mother, painter Karla Moss Freeman. After a year in India within the Tibetan community and back again in Homer, she helped to renovate the historic Inlet Trading Post and co-founded with many local artists the non-profit multidisciplinary art space, Bunnell Street Arts Center. She continued to work for Bunnell while earning a Masters of Fine Art at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Freeman has taught arts classes for the University of Alaska since 1997 and has served as Executive Director of Bunnell. She has had 23 exhibitions since 1991, eight of which were collaborations with her partner, artist Michael Walsh. Freeman’s paintings are represented in the collections of the Pratt Museum, the Art Bank of the Alaska State Council on the Arts, the Alaska State Museum, and private collections worldwide.
Outstanding Arts Organization: North Star Ballet, Fairbanks
North Star Ballet has provided outstanding arts education to Interior Alaska since 1987. The North Star Ballet
School enrolls approximately 200 students each semester and the vast majority of them are under 18. The
Creative Movement program has introduced between 85 and 105 children every year to music and movement
since 1995. The structured 8-year curriculum in Classical Ballet, which enrolls about 100 students annually,
provides comprehensive training that enables students to pursue professional dance careers if desired. Most
students go on to other careers, but their North Star experience gives them valuable preparation in under-
standing and appreciating the arts, as well as life skills such as time management, self-discipline, and teamwork.
In addition to public performances, North Star offers performances at special times and discounted rates to
serve local schools, along with and a study guide to enhance students’ experience. Approximately 3000 local
students participate in this program annually, making it a significant part of the K-12 arts curriculum in Interior
Lifetime Achievement in the Arts: Richard Beneville, Nome (posthumous award)
Richard Beneville was not only the Mayor of Nome, an entertaining host at the end of the Iditarod, and a strong advocate for tourism in Alaska, but he was also an inspiring promoter of creativity and the performing arts. A true song-and-dance man, he toured across the US in national and regional productions of Cabaret, Funny Girl, The Fantastiks, and Pippin. In 1982 he arrived in Alaska. While working in Barrow, Beneville hosted a radio show called “Hello Central” to highlight events and people in the community. He moved to Nome in 1988 and, for more than thirty years, Beneville championed the arts and artists throughout the area. Working with local residents, the schools, the city, and the Nome Arts Council, Beneville chaired, organized, and directed events to provide opportunities for creative expression, training, recognition, and fun. Beneville loved the spotlight whether it was reciting “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” singing “Mack the Knife,” or doing a little soft-shoe dance. Beneville’s greatest achievement, and why he is being honored, was his ability to see and encourage the artistic talent of other people – painters, dancers, musicians, photographers, singers, crafters, and actors. Whenever someone took the chance to perform or exhibit their work, Beneville would say, “You’re my hero!” His passion for the arts left an indelible, delightful, and lasting contribution for the people of Nome and all of Alaska.
Each year, an Alaskan artist is commissioned to create a series of unique awards to present to the awardees. The 2021 awards will be created by Sonya Kelliher-Combs
Sonya Kelliher-Combs was raised in the Northwest Alaska community of Nome. Her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree is from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Master of Fine Arts is from Arizona State University.
Through her mixed media painting and sculpture, Kelliher-Combs offers a chronicle of the ongoing struggle for self-definition and identity in the Alaskan context. Her combination of shared iconography with intensely personal imagery demonstrates the generative power that each vocabulary has over the other. Her process dialogues the relationship of her work to skin, the surface by which an individual is mediated in culture.
Kelliher-Combs' work has been shown in numerous individual and group exhibitions in Alaska, the United States and internationally. She is a recipient of the prestigious United States Arts Fellowship, Joan Mitchell Fellowship, Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art, Rasmuson Fellowship and is a recipient of the 2005 Anchorage Mayors Arts Award and 2010 Alaska Governor's Individual Artist Award. Her work is included in the collections of the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Art, Anchorage Museum, Alaska State Museum, University of Alaska Museum of the North, Eiteljorg Museum, and The National Museum of the American Indian.
Kelliher-Combs currently lives and works in Anchorage, Alaska.
Click on the buttons below to learn more about past awardees. Click here to see a full list of all awardees, 1968-2021.