Summer art show depicts Alaska's untamed animals

Posted: Sunday, May 04, 2003

Spring is here and many species of wildlife are starting to come out their burrows and dens or are returning from their out-of-state winter homes.

But it's not just the flesh-and-bone animals that are making an appearance. Acrylic moose, watercolor waterfowl and pastel salmon also have arrived with the "Alaska 2003: A Celebration of Wildlife Art" exhibition.

The exhibition, which opened at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center on Thursday, features more than 70 original paintings from 43 world-renowned masters.

The show is the largest and most exclusive invitational wildlife art exhibition in the state of Alaska and one of the largest in the nation.

"It's been a lot of leg work," said David Wartinbee, guest curator of the show. "It's been over 12 months in the planning."


"Pribilof Summer" by John Pitcher

The guest curator title doesn't mean this is Wartinbee's first time putting on a show.

A biologist and college instructor by trade, he put on several wildlife art shows while teaching back in Pennsyl-vania many years ago.

"The shows were very well received," Wartinbee said. "We had more people coming to the art shows put on by the biology department than the shows put on by the art department."

Here on the peninsula, Wartinbee decided to try the same thing, so he organized the first Celebration of Wildlife Art in 2000.


"Tundra Wolf" by John Lofgreen

"The idea was to put on a beautiful show that the community could enjoy," he said.

Little did he know just how much the community was going to enjoy it. More than 20,000 people came to view the exhibition.

"I had tourists coming up and saying, This is the type of show I would expect to see in New York City, but I hadn't expected to see this type of show in Kenai,'" he said.

Wartinbee is modest about the praise and his role as guest curator.


"Stolen Treasure" by Jon Van Zyle

"I don't think of myself as having a title. I'm just a guy involved."

However, being "involved," meant Wartinbee had the prestigious position of selecting the artists for the show. A responsibility he said he enjoyed.

"I picked artists whose work I really liked, and I looked for a variety of styles," Wartinbee said. "Some of the artists paint with incredible detail, right down to every vein on every leaf. Others have a whimsical, almost impressionist style."

The only criteria Wartinbee set for the artists was that the animals they painted had to be found in Alaska. So far he is pleased with what he's seen.

"What I like about the wildlife art is it takes me back to a time when I've experienced seeing that thing, or it shows me things I would like to see and experience," he said.

As a biologist, Wartinbee also looks for biological continuity to the pieces. In that he means everything in the piece fits that environment and seasonal pattern.

"It's like viewing a portrait of the Serengeti. If you see a leopard in a tree, you want it to be the distinctive style of an acacia tree, not an oak. That would be out of place."


"Ready For Anything" by Fred Machetanz

All of the invitations Wartinbee extended to selected artists were accepted. Wartinbee said this year's show is especially exciting because not only is most of the work in the show new, with several pieces painted specifically for this show, but also all of the art in the show is original work no prints or reproductions.

In addition, a lot of the pieces in the show are spectacular in size.

"We have many pieces over 40 inches, and at least one that is 40-inches by 50-inches. That's a big piece," he said.

Although impressive to behold, many would agree that size doesn't always matter, and there are also a few paintings as small as 3-inches by 3-inches.

The myriad of artists represented by the exhibition deserves accolades in itself.


"Ready For Anything" by Fred Machetanz

"Some of the artists are new and young but already extremely talented," Wartinbee said. "While others like Robert Bateman, Guy Coheleach and Carl Brenders are world-renowned for their work."

These big guns of the art world have many claims to fame.

Bateman has received critical acclaim and has an enormous following for his realistic depictions of the natural world. He was even commissioned by the governor general of Canada to do a painting as a wedding gift for Prince Charles from the people of Canada.

Coheleach's paintings have received the Society of Animal Artists' Award of Excellence an unprecedented eight times, and he received the celebrated Master Artists Medal from the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in 1983 he is one of only nine artists so highly honored.

Coheleach's work comes with a high price. He recently had a painting sell for $280,000 at a Christie's auction.


"Interloper" by Mark Susinno

Brenders has been said to have a love for all creatures, and he has painted everything from friendly to ferocious. He is known for his masterful attention to every detail, and is said to paint wild animals with such realism that the viewer can almost feel their texture.

Brenders has been quoted as saying, "A painter is a privileged being, because in his imagination he can come very close to the animals he paints. In reality, one can never come this close to wild animals, particularly if they are predators."

As Wartinbee put it, "There won't be any smiling bunnies at this show."

Most of the pieces at the show are for sale, but agreements have been made that all pieces in show will remain hanging until the show is over. Wartinbee expects some of the art will sell, despite price tags of $1,500 to $50,000.

"We sold about 40 percent of the art in the 2000 show," he said." We even had a museum call and purchase $40,000 worth of art over the phone."


"Goat Country" by Jack Dumas

Regardless of all the hard work Wartinbee put into making this exhibition come alive, he said there were many other entities involved in putting on a show of this caliber and magnitude.

"A show like (this) can be the dream of a few, but it takes a community to make it happen," he said.

He said the exhibition was made possible with the help of the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, the Kenai Convention and Visitors Bureau that operates it, the University of Alaska Anchorage and Kenai Peninsula College, the thousands of dollars of corporate sponsorship, the hundreds of hours of volunteer service, the artists who shared their artwork and the thousands of visitors who flock to see the show.

Wartinbee said he hopes that seeing the artists' depictions of various animals from Alaska will remind people of the duty of stewardship owed to these animals.

"We must make sure that our children can experience these same scenes in the wild when we are gone," he said.

More information on "Alaska 2003: A Celebration of Wildlife Art" can be obtained by calling the visitors and center at 283-1991.

The museums hours after Memorial Day will be 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends.

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