Drawing on Memory

Kenai Peninsula had to be experienced to be seen

Posted: Sunday, April 30, 2006


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  "Kenai Lake, Fall," oil on canvas by Steve Gordon.

Detail from "Fish on and on and on," watercolor by Paula Dickey.

Soldotna sculptor Connie Tarbox is a believer in the theory that where an artist lives plays a part in their work.

“I really believe it has to because it affects who you are,” she said. “... And the Kenai happens to be where I’ve grown up and grown old.”

The summer art show now on display at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center is a testament to that philosophy — that art and the artist’s environment are irrevocably linked.

Longtime peninsula resident and life-long artist Jim Evenson of Nikiski curated the show. He asked the 71 Alaska artists involved to explore “The Kenai Experience” in their work.


"Frozen Finds," detail of a mixed media sculpture relief by Don Decker.

The results are as varied as the artists. The majority are current or former peninsula residents, but even those who are just periodic visitors were able to evoke imagery that is uniquely Kenai — like images of Kenai Lake, Mount Redoubt and dipnetting on Kenai beach. Indeed, water and fishing in particular are recurring images in the show — whether it’s a commercial fleet bringing in its catch, a rod and rubber boots waiting to be retrieved from their summer hiatus or a tribute to a loved one lost in Cook Inlet.

In his curator’s vision statement, Evenson remarks on the impact Kenai has had on his work.


"IceFall," acrylic with texture by Ward Hulbert.

“The Kenai experience has been an integral part of my life and an inspiration for my art for fifty years,” Evenson wrote in his curator’s vision statement. “I have seen and been a part of Kenai’s growth from a small fishing village to a modern city. This growth has paralleled many of my own changes as an artist.”

“The Kenai Experience” artists had different takes on how this place affects them. Some are cute, others personal and some are general enough that even a first-time visitor could recognize them.

But all artwork had to first be experienced before they could be seen in the show.

Going the distance


"Kenai Lake, Fall," oil on canvas by Steve Gordon.

For Tarbox, the Kenai isn’t just somewhere she visits to gawk at wildlife or fill her freezer; it’s where she goes grocery shopping, pays taxes and raises her children.

It’s where she grew up — well, sort of.

“I moved here when I was 30 and was still growing up — so that kind of growing up,” she said.

All facets of her life here make up her Kenai experience, which may explain why her piece, “Separation Anxiety,” depicts something so personal.

Tarbox started working on a chunk of raspberry alabaster with the “Kenai Experience” show in mind, but not much else.

“Almost always I start with an idea or issue or something I’m trying to work out with the stone. This one I didn’t,” she said.

She just started forming the stone, hoping a shape would reveal itself.

At the same time family tension was revealing itself in her life. Taxbox’s youngest of three daughters, Laura, was heading off to New York state for her senior year of college. Laura was reluctant to go, having a difficult time transitioning to adulthood, which heightened Tarbox’s difficulty transitioning into the mother of adults.

Suddenly that theme became apparent in the stone.

“All of a sudden I could see it in the stone,” Tarbox said. “... I was working with another friend and had been talking about how (Laura) was leaving and so on and just looking back to the stone and it was just, ‘Yeah, this is about separation.’ So it did just hit me between the eyes.”


"Sterling Hills," oil stain on silver maple by Ron Senungetuk.

The stone had been evolving toward three curved segments joined at the top and base. Once Tarbox’s vision and sentiment coalesced, she worked on further separating the three, making two smooth to represent her and her husband, and one still rough-edged.

“The one part moving away and not being as worn and smoothed as the others — that would be the daughter,” Tarbox said.

Smoking out an idea

Natasha Ala’s piece, “Smoked Red,” captures a single segment of a lifelong experience in one image.

The Kenai artist grew up on a Strawberry Road farming homestead, and she is well versed in fishing life, as well.

“I’ve been fishing my whole life, “ she said. “I grew up commercial fishing on boats. I always had my hand in salmon in the summer.”

That hand —scrubbed of scales and slime, of course — routinely reaches for salmon during the year —canned, frozen, vacuum-packed, but always smoked.


"Wondrous Waters Flow Thru," basswood sculpture by Sandy Stolle.

“I have a collection of smoked salmon recipes and stories,” Ala said. “Everyone has different recipes and uses different kinds of wood. I think it’s all just really interesting, kind of how people get into wine, I get into smoked salmon.”

Kenai’s personal-use fishery supplies the fodder for Ala’s hobby, and a reason for an annual reunion. Once the reds hit the Kenai River, friends from as far away as Fairbanks turn Ala’s yard into a fish camp.

“There are tents all over the place, the hot tub is going twenty-four-seven, the smokers are going, we usually have like four pressure cookers going on the lawn. ... It becomes quite an experience,” she said.

At the center of the activity is Ala’s grandfather’s smoker, resting on stilts with a tube connecting it to a wood stove.

“It’s very old school , very low-tech,” Ala said.

With a capacity of 25 salmon at a time, the old-schooler easily smokes up a dipnetter’s limit of fish, and last year produced Ala’s painting, as well.

“I was looking at it and thought the racks are exactly the same size as this piece of paper,” she said. “And the colors were so awesome that I decided to do a piece.”

Ala spray-painted the rack to transfer the grid onto paper. After that came a layer of paper cut in fish steak-sized chunks.

The smoker, being as old-school crotchety as it is, is influenced by the weather. On cold, rainy days “it takes forever” to smoke, Ala said. Last July’s warm weather spawned quick smoking and eye-catching chemistry.

“The salts and sugars were kind of crystallizing in with the salmon and creating really awesome colors,” Ala said.

Ala mimicked the vibrant red in her piece, creating an image that can be seen and nearly smelled from across a room.

“I’m really happy with it,” Ala said. “I think it reflects the pleasure I get from smoking. It’s a fun mediative process that’s very fulfilling.”

And the fish?

“It was great. It’s always really great.”

Color me creative

Color was the inspiration behind Sandy Stolle’s wood carving in the “Kenai Experience” show. The hue that sparked her creativity doesn’t exist in a Crayola box, but it is something familiar to anyone driving through the central Kenai Peninsula.

“I wanted to just do something that talked about the colors, especially the Kenai River and what we see in Kenai Lake, and it kind of goes right through the Kenai Peninsula. Not all rivers are that color,” Stolle said.

Stolle said that she wanted to do something simple yet playful for the show, and her mind was drawn to the river, just as her eyes are when she drives in or out of her hometown of Seward.

“Every time I drive the highway I always look for it,” she said. “It’s something special and it’s a slightly special color every day.”

Stolle’s piece, “Wondrous Waters Flow Thru,” evolved from some scrap pieces of basswood she got from a friend. She formed them into a series of undulating vertical elements set on a flat horizontal background. She used wood stains rather than paint so the wood’s grain would still be visible, which works particularly well in this piece because the grain mimics water.

The hardest part of the work was getting the right color stain, Stolle said. Ironically enough her color template didn’t even come from the river, it came from a rock on the shore of Resurrection Bay.

“It was probably in January that I was trying to finish up the piece. It’s hard to go look at the (river) water then,” she said.

“I was walking along the shore here and found a rock that really reminded me of the Kenai River color, so I tried to match it with that.”

Though water can sometimes be a bane to Alaskans — Stolle recalls in Seward how winter avalanches block transportation, spring floods wash out roads and unceasing rain tends to find its way into houses — Stolle hopes to strike a chord of pleasant reminiscence with her piece.

“I wanted something flowing that would remind them or spark their memory of being on the water, not so much a literal translation of it,” she said.

As to the less-pleasant experiences with water, “We’re Alaskans, right? We can deal with it. ... So they say. So we tell each other.”

Bringing work to life

Kenai Lake is a popular recreation destination for visitors and peninsula residents, and Steve Gordon’s “Kenai Lake, Fall” shows why.

The painting portrays the lake in its autumn finery —a slant of sun igniting the fall foliage, the turquoise blue of far-off mountains melting onto the water’s mirror surface — yet as popular a view as the lake is, it’s never been seen or represented quite the way Gordon has before.

“I try to capture my own reaction to it. I’m not interested in exact retinal likeness,” Gordon said.

In a sense the piece is a likeness of the lake, albeit a conglomerated one composed from thousands of photos Gordon has taken there. But more than that, it’s a record of Gordon being there, excusing himself from a family outing so he could capture a scene on film in preparation for recreating it later with his brush.

“More the spirit of the place, how it affected me is what I put down,” he said. “The painting is kind of a record of that event. I hope people walk away with a sense of sort of my experience of that and the joy that I had of doing it. That it’s alive.”

Gordon’s experiences on the lake come from family outings to his in-laws’ cabin there. He, his wife and kids live in Anchorage and adjourn to the wilderness as a small family unit, or sometimes they cast the net of relatives wider to include cousins, siblings and others.

No matter how full a cabin a trip entails, Gordon finds time to steal off by himself to study the landscape. He finds spring and fall particularly tempting seasons to play hooky from his family.

“The fall when you have the color of the lake and the fall colors and that kind of light on the mountain tops is quite dramatic. ... And I like kind of the expansive feel that you get from the foregrounds zooming away into the distance, into the mountain valley that forms the lake,” he said.

He does confess to being a fair-weather Kenai experiencer, though.

“We don’t go there a lot during the dead of winter. Maybe that’s equally beautiful,” Gordon said.

“The Kenai Experience” is on display through Sept. 9 at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center. Summer hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

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