Shayla Sackinger didn’t set out to be an artist. It developed organically from a prior interest.

“I’m a huge bird nerd,” she explained. “I’ve always been interested in birds. Before art took over I wanted to be an ornithologist and work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. And I always wanted to share the birds I saw with other people. So that’s what started me drawing. Drawing all the ducks in my pond. It wasn’t until about middle school that I thought, ‘I think I want to do this.’ It just escalated form there.”

For Sackinger, who is entering her final year at University of Alaska Fairbanks, birds are prominently featured in many of her works, but there’s an entirely different influence as well.

“Birds have always been a constant. I live out in the middle of Goldstream, we’re in the middle of a swamp. We’ve got lots of ducks. We also get sandhill cranes. But I’m also a huge gamer. In high school it was half art, half games. I would draw during my classes, then at home I would game. Rinse and repeat.”

Sackinger’s primary medium is pen and ink drawings, over which she applies watercolors. The results are playful images, some of which blend reality with fantasy. There’s also a comics element seeping into some of pieces, which comes as no surprise given that her first art teacher in college was Fairbanks’ most well-known cartoonist.

“Jamie Smith taught the first two art classes I had,” she said, crediting the creator of the popular Alaska comic “Nuggets” for helping her find her way. “If it weren’t for Jamie I don’t know where my style would be. I took his comics class in the summer of 2015. He didn’t focus on improving us. It was more just getting us to draw. He said you don’t have to worry about making it good, you don’t have to worry about making it perfect. As long as it gets the message across, that’s the main point.”

All of these influences are on display in her piece, “The Chickens Adopted a Dragon.” From a realistic angle, Sackinger has included her chickens, which she raises at home, and placed them in the boreal forest, with spruce trees forming an iconic Alaskan backdrop. 

The birds surround a dragon, a creature straight out of fantasy. The dragon’s befuddled expression of surrender, meanwhile, gives the scene a lively comic element. The combination is bound to bring smiles to viewers who will find Sackinger’s humor and attention to detail both on display.

Sackinger was born and raised in Fairbanks and admits she doodled her way through high school classes at West Valley. “They got mad at me, but it’s OK. I passed.” During those years she also interned at the Alaska Bird Observatory (now called the Alaska Songbird Institute). There she took part in the tree swallow ecology project, earning the nickname she uses for her social media pages and online promotions.

“For the swallow project we had to band all the birds,” she said. “That would mean waiting for them to fly into the nest box. Then sneak up to the box, cover the hole, open up the box while the bird was inside, grab the bird, band it and let it go.” A friend who was unsuccessful at this task watched Sackinger capture swallows with ease and dubbed her the Bird Ninja. Thus, Bird Ninja Art was born.

After graduating, Sackinger entered UAF where, she said, “I went in as a wildlife biology major but took art classes as my elective. After two years I declared my major as art.”

While art is her primary calling, she’s majoring in Japanese studies as well. This led to the opportunity to spend a year at Tokyo’s Waseda University, one of Japan’s top universities, from which she recently returned. For Sackinger, this was her first big leap outside her comfort zone.

“At first it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, everything’s new. There’s art stores. There’s cheap art supplies. Oh my goodness, yes!’ But then I started to feel homesick two months in. I’d never lived away from home, I’d never lived away from Fairbanks, I’d never lived away from my parents or in a dorm. There were a lot of new things for me. I’d never lived in a city either. I lived out in Goldstream. I really missed my chickens.”

To keep herself occupied, Sackinger would visit museums, parks and other attractions, take photographs, then go home and draw what she had seen. Sometimes she would livestream her work as she did it.

While the Fairbanks art scene is, as she says, vibrant and “very, very welcoming,” in Tokyo she found art less participatory, and artists more reclusive. “People do art but they aren’t public about it. You won’t see people on thee street drawing. You won’t see people advertising workshops. There’s not a lot of that. There are a lot of resources available, but it’s on you to do the art. There’s no real place to go to.”

She contrasted this with Fairbanks where, she said, “I’ll go to the farmers market and end up chatting with the local artists for hours. Sometimes I’ll sit behind the booth and draw with them.”

Now back home, Sackinger has her biggest showing yet this month at GOOD Cannabis, one of several local dispensaries that have display art in addition to selling cannabis products.

Sackinger feels she’s been in a period of rapid improvement, and advises those who aspire to create art to “Grab a pad of paper. Grab a pencil or whatever. And just draw every day. Don’t let people push you around or tell you what to draw, just draw. Eventually you will get better.”

She also suggests taking classes and having work critiqued by teachers and fellow students. Stick to it, she said, and “it’s crazy what kind of progress you can make in three years. Heck, even a year.”

Shayla Sackinger’s work will be on display throughout the month of September at GOOD Cannabis, 356 Old Steese Highway. Thirty % of sales receipts will be donated to the Alaska Songbird Institute. Her website is birdninjaart.artstation.com, and she can be found on social media by searching for Bird Ninja Art.

David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. Creating Alaska is an ongoing series documenting the lives of artists and creators in Fairbanks. Feedback and suggestions for future interviews can be emailed to nobugsinak@gmail.com.