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Before the Nordic Heritage Museum moves from its location in historic Webster Elementary School in Ballard to a shiny, massive waterfront location, a local artist is brightening the halls.

Susan Ringstad-Emery is a Seattle-based artist using mixed-media panel works, paintings and graphite illustrations to celebrate her own unique heritage.

Ringstad-Emery was born to a Norwegian/Swedish father and a Iñupiat (native Alaskan) mother. Her works reflect life north of the arctic circle.

“I’m really excited that the Nordic Heritage Museum has welcomed me so warmly and is helping to broaden the definition of what it is to be Nordic,” she said. “I’ve had cousins from Norway get to know me and say I am “very Norwegian” in my behavior and outlook and I’ve been slowly learning the Norwegian language for years now.  People love to play guessing games about my cultural heritage and no one has ever guessed Iñupiat and Scandinavian.”

Her gallery is the 451st for the Nordic Heritage Museum and the last full show (ending Nov. 12) before the museum moves to its new location in December.

Her deeply textured paintings spring from the canvas. One work, “Isbjorn,” depicts a cream-colored polar bear with finite detail, presenting a glimpse of the magic and stark danger of the arctic.

Ringstad-Emery recalls early days of interest in the creatures of the snow and ice.

“I’ve been creating for as long as I can remember, whether it was grade school when I was doodling images of walruses on ice floes, or winning awards in art contests as an adult before any formal training,” she said. “Drawing comes naturally, I only recently began painting. Several years ago I won an award for a drawing I entered at a native cultural center in Alaska when they offered me a terrific opportunity to paint all their elders. Sadly, I had to turn it down because I’d never painted before and didn't know where to start.”

She set off to get formal training so she could say yes if such an opportunity arose again, and now holds an Associates of Fine Art degree in studio art. Her influences include “Ilitqusiat, or our values system of northwest Alaska,” and a great appreciation for her cultures, family and the nature around her.

Ringstad-Emery comes from a line of artists, including her maternal grandfather Teddy Sockpick, who specialized in scrimshaw etchings and her paternal grandmother Florence Selberg-Ringstad, who loved the arts and worked in watercolor.

Her works evoke a sense of nostalgia as equally with a landscape of a small Norwegian village as with a lone timber wolf bristling against howling wind. It’s a Jack London tale from someone who actually knows the culture. She keeps contact with her native roots as often as she can.

“I usually go to at least one art auction fundraiser in Anchorage, Alaska each year to benefit native organizations, this is one way I can reconnect with my Native Alaskan culture and visit family. Being separated from the nucleus of my Alaska Native tribe/people has its challenges,” Ringstad-Emery said. “I feel as if I miss out on some inspiration or influence that would naturally come from immersion in my native culture.  I think there are many people with native heritage who, for various reasons, are not with their people; I believe they might easily understand what I’m talking about here.  We put down roots and have a new place of belonging, but our tribal heritage is always a part of who we are and influences our way of thinking.”

Her graphite drawings of family members are beautiful, and she instills her own culture into common stories - such as the drawing of an Iñupiat family welcoming a Christ-like infant under the North Star, Northern Lights and under the knowing gaze of a musk ox (she likes including animals which call both Alaska and Norway home to bridge her cultures). 

But while she appreciates the interest in her own culture and heritage, she does acknowledge that there’s a division created when people start with those aspects.

“I like to suggest promoting inclusivity by using the mindset of “person first, race second.” Get to know someone as a person for a bit before inquiring about their race, it provides an initial foundation of knowing them as an individual,” she said. “No matter how well-intentioned, leading with questions about race may convey the subtle message of ‘otherness.’”

Ringstad-Emery is currently working on a collaborative show to premiere this spring with three other women of color on what it means to be ‘local’ in Seattle.