Alumni at Work
Jessi Saiki: Sparking a sense of empathy and advocacy through art
Direct Support Professional I, Arc of Anchorage
By Matt Jardin
Look toward East Anchorage for one of the trendiest galleries in town. Newly housed within The Arc of Anchorage’s main campus is Sparc, a studio and learning space that serves individuals who experience intellectual and developmental disabilities, and uses creativity to celebrate expression and promote independence. Sparc was spun off from The Arc of Anchorage in 2014 due to the popularity of its art program.
Starting as an intern during her senior year, UAA art alumna Jessi Saiki works at Sparc as a direct support professional, teaching classes on printmaking, newsletters, digital photography and ceramics — her specialty. Saiki credits the diverse skills she learned at UAA for preparing her to teach the wide variety of disciplines she covers at Sparc.
“At UAA I learned a combination of things that all artists need when they’re developing their expressive voice,” said Saiki. “I had really great mentors who helped me learn foundational and important technical skills across mediums. In my classes, I had a really safe environment and open-minded community where I could make deeply personal art and express what was coming from inside.”
Sparc’s mission resonates on a personal level with Saiki. Born in Anchorage but raised in Wasilla, she experienced a traumatic brain injury as a high school freshman.
“I totally would describe art as a coping mechanism, a cathartic relief for a lot of thoughts and emotions,” said Saiki. “I see it as a mental health tool. I definitely see things that come out of my art as things that I’m working through mentally, emotionally or subconsciously.”
According to Saiki, her traumatic brain injury occasionally makes her memory a little hazy. But one thing she’ll never forget is how her grandmother was her artistic inspiration and continues to be her mentor.
“I’ve been hand-building and throwing on the wheel since I was a child,” said Saiki. “One of my first ceramic experiences that I can remember is my nana brought up a whole bunch of clay in her suitcase and we did an open pit fire in our backyard. She is my artistic mentor who facilitated the best learning environment for art of all mediums.”
Outside of her day job, Saiki continues to be a passionate advocate for mental health and disability awareness, citing a lack of research around traumatic brain injuries that persists even today as one of the reasons she started to get involved.
Earlier this year, Saiki traveled to Juneau with the Key Coalition of Alaska to participate in the annual Key Campaign. Over the course of one week, people who experience disabilities, their family members and the professionals who work in the organizations supporting them meet with politicians to fundraise and recommend improvements to quality of life services.
“I’m very fortunate in my experience and feel like it’s my duty to be an advocate. I see the things that go on within the system firsthand and I hear people’s stories. Whatever I can do to improve their situation and improve their quality of life, I want to do that,” said Saiki. “It’s absolutely my duty and that’s within the system of the place that I work, but also in the larger governmental systems. I think lots of people see and hear stories that we can all be speaking up and advocating about.”
For anyone who wants to get more involved but perhaps doesn’t know where to start, Saiki suggests the first step is as simple as having a sense of empathy.
“As a society, I hope that we grow to be more appreciative of art as a tool and art’s historical value,” said Saiki. “I also hope we grow to be more empathetic and aware of the things that are going on around us, even within situations and social circles that we’re not completely aware of because it’s outside our experience. That’s definitely something that UAA has done for me. Through my education, I feel like I’ve gained this new awareness and empathy that is mine and no one can ever take that away from me, and that’s so empowering.”
Dinnerware created for Jenggala Keramic, Bali Indonesia
Vessels created while studying at Rochester Institute of Technology
Post Baccalaureate Student, Rochester Institute of Technology
In 2017, Lukas Easton received his BFA degree from UAA which culminated in an exhibition
of his thesis work in the Kimura Gallery entitled, “Visceral Visions”. A series of
large-scale vessels with carved narrative depicting the depravities of war, politics,
and society. Lukas was awarded a UAA Undergraduate Research Grant which he used to
purchase tools and supplies needed to complete his thesis. Lukas presented a lecture
about his work at the Undergraduate Research Symposium in April 2017.
In the fall of 2017, following a summer of commercial fishing in Homer, Lukas began studying as a post-baccalaureate student in ceramics at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He had the opportunity to be mentored by Peter Pincus and Jane Shellenbarger, two highly esteemed professors in the ceramic field. While there, he reconnected with a former UAA ceramic student, Ade Waworuntu, who owns Jenggala Keramic, a large-scale ceramic production company in Bali, Indonesia. Ade invited Lukas to come to Jenggala to continue his research and design a set of dinnerware for her company. His designs will be launched Indonesia in May and will be featured at a hotel supply vendor exposition in Dubai, UAE in September.
In 2019, Lukas was accepted as a graduate student at the Alfred School of Art and Design, a prestigious ceramic art and engineering program in western New York where he will continue to develop his artistic practice.
“My time at UAA has been invaluable to me as my career develops. UAA gave me a space to take on the impossible, and the support and push to make it happen. That time taught me I was capable of more than I ever knew. The program held me to an unwavering high standard and has done an amazing job of sending me out into the world with a well-rounded knowledge of my field and a standard of excellence that is unmatched.”
Graphic Designer and Illustrator, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium
Danielle Larsen, an artist of Unangax̂ Aleut, Koyukon Athabascan, Inupiaq and European
ancestry, made a life changing decision in 2010 to return to UAA and pursue a Bachelor
of Fine Arts degree. Her father John “Jackie” Larsen died in October of that year.
His sudden passing brought Danielle to a place of self-reflection about her life and
choices. She knew that going back to school would direct her to what she truly wanted
to do which was to be an artist. While in college, Danielle began making paintings
that were rooted in her Alaska Native culture and her memories of her family, especially
her father. “I found comfort in painting images of my father’s jars of kippered smoked
salmon. It made me feel more closely connected to his spirit”. Danielle’s professor,
Alvin Amason saw so much potential in this work and encouraged her in that direction.
Eventually Danielle completed her thesis exhibition which consisted of several large
scale colorful works that were displayed in the Kimura Gallery.
Since graduating, Danielle has been learning the cultural tradition of seal gut sewing from Mary Tunchuk, Elaine Kingeekuk, and Sonya Kelliher-Combs. She has a strong connection to the history of seal hunting as her grandfather, John Larson, came to the Pribiliof islands to harvest fur seals. There, he met his future wife(Danielle’s grandmother), Agnia Tetoff. Danielle says of her latest work, “The long history of seal harvest, where every part of the seal is used to make food, clothes, buoys, and art, informs my current artwork. I have continued this tradition by learning how to prepare seal gut for use in my artwork. I did not learn to use gut from my family but believe that it was my ancestors guiding me to the opportunities to learn traditional ways.”
Danielle’s life as an artist has been very busy with many opportunities. She has taught at an Unangax̂ (Aleut) Culture Camp, exhibited her work at the Sevigney Gallery and AFN conferences, and was recognized at the Emerging Designer Showcase at Design week at the Anchorage Museum.
Most recently, she was hired as Graphic Designer and Illustrator at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. Her job at ANHTC and being a studio artist allows for her to communicate with her work on many levels. “I hope my work inspires and influences the next generation to learn to further embrace our rich and diverse cultural heritage and continue to share it with the world.”