Artist at heart

‘Kenai Experience’ curator makes art of Alaska life

Posted: Thursday, April 27, 2006


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  Nikiski artist Jim Evenson, pictured with a detail from one of his paintings titled "Nikiski Symphony," is the curator for "Kenai Experience." The show opens this Friday at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Nikiski artist Jim Evenson, pictured with a detail from one of his paintings titled "Nikiski Symphony," is the curator for "Kenai Experience." The show opens this Friday at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

James Evenson has worn many hats over his fifty-odd years in Alaska.

Some remember him as coach Evenson from his years coaching Kenai Central High School basketball players, cross country runners and track team members.

Some recall him as Mr. Evenson, an art teacher at Kenai Central, Anchorage (now West) High School or Kenai Peninsula College.

Some probably remember him from his years as a commercial fisherman and volunteer firefighter.

But one constant in Evenson’s life is a hat he’s worn since his formative years in Chicago: Evenson is an artist.

“At art time, the other kids would come over and say ‘Jimmy, how do you draw Speed,’ or ‘How do you draw a brick wall,’ or ‘How do you draw a horse?’ I’ve just always been the one that could do that; it’s something I just grew up with,” Evenson said.


"Clowns" is a lithographic print from 2004.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Friday night at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, guests to the opening gala of the center’s “The Kenai Experience” summer art exhibition will greet Evenson as the exhibit’s the guest curator.

Guest curator is the latest art-related title for the Nikiski artist. Evenson’s lifetime commitment saw him study art at Chicago’s Oak Park High School, then Grinnell College, then at the University of Iowa.

In 1970, a sabbatical from teaching at KCHS had Evenson studying the form he now teaches the occasional workshop in — stone lithography — in Malaga, Spain.

His work has been exhibited throughout Alaska, in the Midwest, Spain, Canada and Russia over the years.


"Orb" is a painting Evenson completed in 2005.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The acceptance of a watercolor named “Mountain Glow” into the San Diego International Watercolor Show in 2002, he said, was a particularly gratifying experience.

“(That) was maybe the high point of my watercolor career,” Evenson said.

Still, the motivation for painting, etching and creating stone lithographs is personal, not commercial. Accolades and art purchases, he explains, are icing on the cake.

“I paint what I want to paint, and if somebody wants to buy it, fine” he said. “Every time somebody buys one of my paintings, it gives me a little charge because it will become part of their lives and live in their house with them. It’s just one nice thing after the other.”

One nice thing after another is the way he describes life in Alaska, too.

He and his wife, Nedra, who also serves as his partner in stone lithograph printing, recall the decision to homestead along Bishop Lake in Nikiski as starting during a 1955 vacation.

The pair brought a student of Jim’s at Cornell University up the Alaska Highway on a road trip to meet with her parents, who had just moved to Kenai from Nome.

“(Her parents) said, ‘Do you want to camp out on the beach?’”

Jim and Nedra spent the night, then the summer, on the flats below the Russian Orthodox Church in Kenai.

“We were just enthralled with Kenai. We were there all summer and we watched the color showcase come and go — it was so exciting.”

The pair then planned to return each summer for fishing during the teaching profession’s summertime off-season.

“That worked one summer,” Nedra said. “Jim had a toothache, and the only dentist was in Seward, so we went there between fishing trips, and the wife of the dentist, who was also his receptionist, said ‘You’re an art teacher? They’ll hire you on the spot.’ And that was at twice the salary he was making Outside. We couldn’t believe it.”

That was the start of the Alaska life they’ve shared since. The pair homesteaded on Bishop Lake in Nikiski, where Evenson’s studio is now located.

Alaska life is the focus of the exhibit he helped select art for this year. The work in “The Kenai Experience” this year, he writes in his curator’s statement, “is of exceptionally high quality.”

“Quality,” in this case, means more than just great art. The idea of the exhibit is to express the experience of living on the Kenai Peninsula through art, a task for which Evenson is particularly well-qualified.

“Like most Alaskan artists, I’m inspired by what I see around me, the landscape, the rivers, the lakes, the animals and, of course, what I’ve done in my life: commercial fishing, homesteading, being an artist, being a coach, all of those things.”

The exhibit’s works reflect a wide range of ways to see the world through the peninsula’s lens, and Evenson said artists, in Alaska in general and on the peninsula specifically, are blessed with much by way of inspirational possibilities.

“Every place is a home to somebody, and they think it’s wonderful,” he said. “But there is no doubt about it, in terms of a temperate climate, this has got it over any place in the state. We don’t have terribly cold winters, we don’t have terribly cold summers. We have a great variety of woods, lakes and rivers here, we’ve got all the game and fowl. We have just about everything here that you could want.”

The opening reception for “The Kenai Experience” runs from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center in Kenai. It is free and open to the public.

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