The Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center's new exhibit, "Alaska 2000: A Celebration of Wildlife Art," is generating a buzz among viewers, artists and organizers.
"This really is a class act," said David Wartinbee, who originated the exhibition. "This show has got the top wildlife artists in the world."
As far as he and the other organizers know, Alaska 2000 is the largest wildlife art show ever held in the state. Since it opened May 1, center visitors have been comparing it to the best shows of the type in the nation's major metropolitan galleries and museums.
Kathy Tarr, the center's director, said it is the biggest event ever hosted at the facility.
More than 70 paintings by 28 artists from throughout North America are on display.
Included are Alaska legends such as Fred Machetanz and Jon Van Zyle, plus internationally famous painters in the genre such as Robert Bateman and Guy Coheleach.
Some works displayed may look familiar because of limited edition prints sold in galleries throughout the state or reprinted in publications. But the pictures at the visitors' center are not prints -- these are the original paintings themselves.
"We have what artists refer to as 'major' pieces," Wartinbee said. "Those are things you don't get to see very often. These are big, knock-your-socks-off pieces."
Viewers can lean in close and scrutinize how an airbrush mists the background, a spray of white droplets turns into sparkling snow or a deft, tiny brushstroke highlights the haunting gaze of a wolf.
The paintings are diverse in subject matter and approach. They depict majestic landscapes, fish, fowl and the great mammals of land and sea. Styles range from crisp realism to impressionistic watercolors.
What they share is a keen eye and devotion to nature's beauties.
Among the many special pieces are two by Machetanz, who, at age 93, seldom exhibits new work anymore.
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Bateman created one painting, "Alaskan Autumn," specifically for Alaska 2000.
The Canadian painter is known worldwide as a grand master of the craft. He has traveled the world, published several art books and starred in a solo show at the Smithsonian Institution.
Bateman, in many ways, has been instrumental in making the Kenai show what it is.
Wartinbee, who teaches biology at Kenai Peninsula College, got involved with wildlife art years ago. Attracted by its handsome depictions of the wilderness and animals he admired, he became a collector.
"I just like it," he said.
"I had met Robert Bateman," he said. "We just hit it off."
Wartinbee was teaching at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania. He had a friend who shared his interest in art. Between them, they had quite a collection of prints.
"We thought it would be kind of fun to put on a show," he said. "We put on a show back in the 1970s and it just grew."
Bateman, who is keenly interested in ecology, sent prints to the show because he knew the profits would benefit the biologists' work on reintroducing ospreys to the area. His support gave the whole project the credibility it needed to succeed, Wartinbee said.
Wartinbee put on several more wildlife art shows in Pennsylvania, began visiting exhibitions throughout the Northeast and befriended artists.
Three years ago, he fulfilled a longtime wish and moved to Alaska. He began scouting around for a way to do an art show here.
After meeting Ricky Gease, the manager of exhibits at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, Wartinbee checked out the facility and liked what he saw. He met with Gease and Tarr to discuss the possibilities.
The three teamed up.
"They asked the right questions," Wartinbee said. "Other people I had talked to had no concept of what it took to put on a show."
Tarr and Gease worked on the logistics of sponsors, shipping, publicity and engineering the displays, while the professor focused on cultivating his contacts in the art world.
"Kathy Tarr and Ricky put together packets about the show that knocked their socks off," Wartinbee said.
The trio labored for a year and a half to bring the project to fruition, even constructing the tall exhibit panels. Along the way, they garnered support from numerous volunteers, peninsula businesses and organizations. Kevin Hall donated graphics, and Gary Freeburg from the college hung the paintings and lighting.
With backing from Bateman and other big-name painters, the show had no trouble attracting artistic talent.
"Just to have a Bateman original in a show is a coup. We have three," Wartinbee said.
"A number of the artists actually contacted us. We had to turn down some people I would rather not have turned down."
Wartinbee, designated as the "guest curator" for the exhibit, hand-picked the pieces he wanted.
Quality, not geography, was the determining factor, he said, and 10 Alaskans made the final cut.
The artists who did get in are as enthused as the organizers.
Ed Tussey, who lived in Soldotna for five years and now lives in Homer, said the art work fits perfectly with the Kenai Peninsula's reputation for natural splendor and outdoor recreation.
Alaskans love wildlife art, so he expects strong local interest in the exhibit, he said.
"And as far as visitors, it will show them that we are not just a bunch of Eskimos floating around on pan ice," he said.
Tussey has exhibited his works around the nation and views the selection on display in "Alaska 2000" as the cream of the crop.
"It is very top-notch," he said. "I think it's a great idea."
Eagle River painter John Lofgreen agreed.
Artists are excited about this show and sent their best works, he said.
"There is so much awesome work here," he said. "This is the best show I have ever been in in my life."
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