Sunny Zheng-Herb

William Smith High School, Aurora CO

Explore Native Alaskan arts and culture in Alaska to incorporate elements of this art tradition in the classroom through the teaching of 3D art forms and elevate awareness of non-Western arts practices.

Where I've Been

  • Anchorage, Alaska
  • Denali National Park, Alaska
  • Fairbanks, Alaska
  • Homer, Alaska
  • Seward, Alaska
  • Talkeetna, Alaska
  • Valdez, Alaska

My Fellowship in Images

Me emerging from a reproduction of an Inupiaq shelter at the Alaska Heritage Center
Different types of kayaks created by diverse Native groups in Alaska.
Professor Da-Ka-Xeen Mehner, showing a traditional drum created in his Alaska Native Arts class.
Me in front of "Two Spirits," a wood painting by renowned Inupiaq artist, Ron Senungetuk
"Chilkat Protector masks," a collaboration between 15 indigenous artists to create wooden face masks in response to the Covid-19 pandemic
Me in front of the Chugach Mountains, on my way to Valdez, AK.

Igniting Your Personal and Professional Growth

Describe one or two, specific learning experiences from your fellowship. In words, show us this experience and explain why it was powerful.

While at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, I met with Professor Da-Ka-Xeen Mehner, the Associate Professor of Native Art. We discussed the complexities of teaching Native arts to a cohort of students who are not all indigenous. Issues of representation, appropriation, authenticity, style versus technique and intention deeply impact how Professor Mehner approaches art-making and art-teaching and I anticipate grappling with these questions myself in translating my learning into my classroom.

What did you learn about yourself? What did you learn professionally?

I was reminded of how deeply I care about a careful and critical approach to representation. Alaska Native cultures and peoples have been painfully harmed by Western encroachments on land, resources and identity. As a Chinese-American, I have experienced the harm of stereotype and misrepresentation of the "Oriental" and I was confronted by the many challenges of properly representing a diverse set of cultures that have been grossly parodied in mainstream Western narratives for so long.

What were some unplanned or unexpected experiences or outcomes of your fellowship? Or, how did the fellowship you crafted differ from the actual learning experience?

In my research, I noticed a discrepancy between how nonprofit institutions represented Native arts and how these traditional art forms showed up in private galleries and tourist shops. While museums set Native artwork within its specific sociopolitical context, most galleries and shops sold stylized, fairly stereotypical "traditional" pieces, often made by non-Native artists. My research increasingly veered into an examination of these differing approaches to representation and authenticity.

Impacting Your Classroom, School and Community

Outline specific plans you have to implement your fellowship and reach your student goals.

In my Spring 2023 semester, I plan to craft a 3D woodworking art class centered on Alaska Native woodworking traditions and techniques. We will be practicing with hand tools used by Alaska Native groups for centuries and create different projects based upon the wood crafts of distinct indigenous groups (e.g. Tlingit bent box, Inupiaq drum frame). I will encourage students to draw from the stories and themes of their own diverse cultures instead of trying to recreate Alaska Native spiritual icons

What is one way you can leverage your fellowship to create one authentic learning experience for students? (e.g. hands-on learning, projects, community engagement)

The bent wood box is an art form unique to the indigenous groups of Southeastern Alaska: Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian and Eyak. These boxes served both ceremonial/aesthetic and practical functions and were crated by steaming a thinner piece of wood and bending it into a box shape, requiring no metal hinges or nails. The bent box will be one of the art projects I teach in my woodworking class; we will examine the history and traditions of bent wood box making before creating and decorating our own.

How, specifically, will your fellowship extend beyond your classroom? (e.g. families, school-at-large, afterschool groups, surrounding community, colleagues, etc.)

For this woodworking class, I will partner with local businesses and gathering places (such as a cafe) to provide my students the opportunity to curate their own woodworking exhibition at the end of the class. This student-created art exhibit will showcase the learning and art projects my students have done in this class and will invite families, colleagues and neighborhood residents to participate in my students' learning. This exhibition will also help to deepen existing community connections.