If you’ve seen those quirky stuffed whales made out of recycled materials in gift shops around Alaska, chances are they’re made by Abigail Kokai. She’s started the company Homer Whales a few years ago. But this winter, she wants to do something a little different.
Kokai was one of the three people to win a Rasmuson Foundation grant earlier this year. She said she will use that money to pursue quilting.
Abagail Kokai is busy. She has a summer job, and she’s making loads of stuffed whales which will be distributed to roughly 30 shops in Alaska and some will even wind up in the Lower 48.
Each whale comes from a piece of recycled fabric.
“So I have orcas, small fins, belugas and a few white whales,” she said cutting out whale shapes.
The whales come in all different sizes and colors and no two whales are the same.
Kokai got the idea when she was working at a gift shop on the Homer Spit a few years ago. She first wanted to build a metal whale sculpture on the spit, but she didn’t know how to weld. She did know how to sew.
So, she starting selling homemade stuffed whales, and her business took off.
She said it’s become a bit of an identity.
“Oh it’s the whale lady, oh it’s the whale lady,” she said. "You can't hide from this small town."
Kokai wants to shake that identity. She said quilting is her real passion, and she’s been doing it off and on since she was a teenager. She even went to graduate school to study fiber arts, essentially studying everything from the history of quilting to geographic trends within the practice.
She loves the challenge of telling a story through her quilts.
“If I'm sitting on a bench looking at a street or if I'm watching one of my neighbors walk by or just all the things about the single experience." she said. "So with whales I don't do any of that and with the quilting I'm able to kind of tap into that and try to emulate the experience for somebody else to also feel.”
Now, she has a chance to do that. She was one of three Homer artists to receive grants from the Rasmuson Foundation earlier this year, and she wants to use the money to take time away from her whale business and travel around the state, telling its stories through her quilts.
But she adds that’s a difficult one to tell.
"Even a hike around here looking across the bay or just any type of view, even a camera doesn't even capture the vastness of the experience of being here of how big everything is," she said. "So it's really hard, like I can’t illustrate the entire mountain. I can't illustrate an entire forest. I can't illustrate how big the pushkis are. It’s big for me."
Kokai said she wants to start by focusing on coastal areas around the state. She plans to ride the state’s Marine Highway system and zoom in on life on the ferry and other aspects of coastal life in Alaska.
She hopes to get creative, playing around with texture and structure. Once the quilts are done, she hopes some of her work will be hung up in ferry terminals and on the boats around the state.
Most of all, she hopes the quilts she creates are accessible to people.
Kokai is on the first leg of her trip in Cordova this week and she said she will complete the rest of her trip in October. She'll travel on several shorter routes from Bellingham, Washington to Skagway, Alaska. Kokai said she will begin sewing the quilts based on her trip this winter.
As for her recycled whale business, she’s looking forward to visiting them in gift shops across the state.