Multimedia artist Sarah Campen was born and raised in Sitka. She credits Sitka’s many offerings for young artists with cultivating her own interest in the arts. She now lives on Taas Daa Island in Icy Strait. (Photo by Bob Christensen, Courtesy of Sarah Campen)

The Rasmuson Foundation announced the 2020 winners of its Individual Artist Awards earlier this month. Thirty-six Alaska artists received funding for everything from sculpting to printmaking to choreography. Multimedia artist Sarah Campen, who grew up in Sitka, was one of 25 artists honored with a $7,500 project award. She’ll use the funding to complete a multimedia dance performance about salmon processing.

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KCAW: What’s your connection to Sitka? 

SC: I grew up in Sitka. I believe I moved there when I was six weeks old. I went to high school at Sitka High. I still have family in Sitka, so I come to Sitka pretty frequently to visit them and still have a lot of friends in town. And I just really love that place.

In terms of talking about dance, I was one of the first batch of students to go through Sitka Studio of Dance when it first started. So I’m really grateful for that opportunity. And I was also part of the theater program and the music program, all through school. And the Sitka Fine Arts Camp–all of these offerings that Sitka has available that I think really are powerful for students.

KCAW: And where do you live now?

SC: So, now I live on Taas Daa which is also called Lemesurier Island, and it’s in the middle of Icy Strait. I’m about 12 miles by water from Gustavus. And yeah, I’m right here in the middle of Icy Strait. Got a big batch of water south of me and north of me on this great island. And my partner and I have been building a house out here for several years, so that’s been a big project. I love living out here. And part of this house building project for me has been building an art studio, sort of an office/dance studio. And I’m almost done with that. So I have a dance floor, and I’m gonna have mirrors soon, and it’s very exciting. 

KCAW: What draws you to dance and movement? What do you love about that form of expression?

SC: Ever since I was very young, I have been drawn to movement. Some of my very earliest memories are of dances that I made for myself as a three or four-year-old person. And I don’t know why that would be. I just know that it is. I find myself delighted by movements that are surprising, simple movement, simple gestures. The ways that we use our bodies to communicate that are so ingrained but can be so subconscious.

KCAW: I understand that you teach  in addition to making art. Do you mind talking about that a little bit?

SC: So I’m really interested in creating stories through movement and telling stories through movement. And so, usually when I am teaching through an artist residency, I combine theater exercises along with dance and movement games. And then the goal will be to help students build characters and build stories, but rather than from a place of text–which is what I think we often do–I try to start with movement and then build stories and build characters from there. And then build performances with students that are original performances from these original movements and stories that they’ve made. And I love it, it’s really fun.

KCAW: Could you talk more about your art and what sorts of things you’ve been working on lately?

SC: I think that in my work right now, there’s really two places that I’m really interested in. One of them is making collaborative dance pieces with community members that offer some level of improvisation and surprise to the collaboration. And then particularly adding a video component of that, so that it can be captured.

And then the other direction, which is a little more related to the project that I’m doing for Rasmuson: Especially over the last year, I have started to ask myself, what would it look like for me to build movement and gesture vocabularies that are specifically related to and reflective of the Alaskan life that I live. And that my family lives and so many people that I love live. 

Sarah Campen dances her piece “On Shore Breeze, Low Tide” in 2020 as part of her “Dance This Place” project. “Through it, I combine movements specific to Alaskan life with western contemporary dance and explore the physical relationships between people and place,” writes Campen on her website. (Photo Courtesy of Sarah Campen)

KCAW: Can you talk a little more about your project proposal and what you hope to do with the award?

SC: Sure. Just to lead into that, I want to honor and acknowledge and lift up that there’s thousands of years of dance history here in Alaska. There’s amazing Tlingit dance and Haida dance and Yupik dance, Inupiaq dance. There are these amazing cultures of dance and dance traditions that are really of this place and are reflective of the life and culture of this place. So, I’m certainly not the first person to ask this question of what would it be to make Alaska-specific dance.

But, what I am doing and can do is in my person as somebody who is more trained in Western dance styles of ballet and contemporary and jazz, is figure out how I can take that and then combine it with the pedestrian movements that I see and participate in. You know these things that so many of us do. We haul totes of gear in the rain, we load boats, we unload boats, we walk on the beach, we harvest food, we lift a lot of heavy things, we jump in our kayaks. A lot of very specific work that involves strength and a certain movement pattern. And so I’ve started to think about how can I mix that with elements of dance and basically build dance from those gestures.

So for this project in particular, what I’m going to be doing is focusing on the movements that are used in harvesting and processing salmon, with a particular focus on the commercial troll fishery. So what are all those movements that you do when you’re bringing fish in, when you’re cleaning them, when you’re icing them. I want to basically be able to document that through movement and then abstract it a little bit and allow those movements to grow and be a dance. 

KCAW: Do you have hopes for how that would be presented?

SC: So, that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the age of coronavirus. What I had originally envisioned was a live performance, and I was going to do it in Juneau and possibly have the chance for it to travel to other places. And I envisioned dancing with some other people. And then there also is going to be an audio component to the piece. So what I propose doing is building the dance and then also building an audio soundscape that highlights interviews with people, particularly with commercial fishers–with family members, friends, people who are close to me–to talk about that process. 

All of these things I had imagined doing in person. I still would really love to do that. But I’m also thinking about is there a version of this or an interim version of this that is a video component. 

KCAW: Anything else?

SC: It’s just so special that the Rasmuson Foundation offers this award program. It’s a really inspiring thing to be able to see and learn about and connect with different Alaskan artists just through knowing about people who are profiled through the program. And then also to have funding that is specifically for dedicated projects. It’s just really awesome. There’s not that many pockets of funding for that and so it’s really a special thing that the foundation does for Alaskan artists. 

You can learn about all the 2020 Individual Artist Award recipients here. Also, hear a profile of Sitka artist Jennifer Younger, who was one of only 10 artists to win a competitive fellowship for mid-career artists. Music for the audio portion of this story comes from Blue Dot Sessions (Jog to the Water).

Erin McKinstry is a Report for America Corps Member.