A world of experience

Artist's decades of work, life in Alaska produce vibrant paintings

Posted: Thursday, September 08, 2005


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The Gary L. Freeburg Gallery at Kenai Peninsula College in Soldotna this month has the feeling of being a portal into other worlds.

It's still the college, of course, with the same tan carpet, whoosh of the bathroom doors down the hall and scattered fragments of conversation from students passing by. But the art hanging on the walls give the room a different feel, as if it were an observation point onto colorful and frenetic — yet often recognizable — scenes.

Many of the rectangular paintings are divided into further rectangles, giving them the look of window panes. The view from these windows isn't what you would see looking out a classroom, however.

There are fish roiling thick as if caught in a massive spawning traffic jam, ravens amassed under a red sun, ghostly figures dancing amid a shower of reds and blues, and other, less recognizable but still eye-catching sights.



These are the worlds created by Alex Combs, the Halibut Cove painter, potter and sculptor who's been called the father of modern art in Alaska, said Celia Anderson, head of the art department at KPC.

Combs has been developing these worlds for quite some time. At 86, he's been an Alaska resident since driving up the Alaska Highway with his family in 1955 and a Halibut Cove resident since 1959. His surroundings have always managed to creep into his work, whether it's a realistic painting of an Alaska landscape or an abstract pattern of vibrant colors, as in the KPC show.

"Basically it's things that have had an influence on me in Alaska," Combs said. "I've been here quite a while now. It's bound to have that sort of influence. ... I've always had that influence. I don't think I have any other. I hope not."

Painting abstracts is a somewhat new trend for Combs, one he sees himself continuing.

"My work has been leading that way, I think, more than anything else. After all I'm 86 now. I have picked up lots of influences in lots of different ways and lots of different types of things. I think it was more something that would eventually happen to anyone."


"The Struggle"

He still does some representational painting, as well as works with ceramics, but he's also enjoying the challenge of the abstract.

"I think it's a natural thing that one goes more toward abstraction," he said. "It's harder to do but if you're really sincere you try to do the things that are hard."

Combs' abstract paintings are packed with such detail and depth that they seem to extend into the ether beyond the flat surface of the canvass. To create them he used alkyds, a form of oil paint that doesn't smear or have to dry before being painted over, which adds to the capacity for layering.

"I like it partly because of the fact that it's something you can work on quite a while," he said.

Another hallmark of these paintings is the generous use of color.

"I like color, that's one of the things I like to do in them," Combs said. "I like a little variety in my work, you know, it keeps you from getting board. That's one thing you'll find about all my work ... different kinds of styles. I think it's a lot more colorful, in some ways."

Combs' collection of new abstract paintings kicks off the KPC gallery's 2005-06 schedule of exhibits.

"I was hoping to get Alex. I've been thinking about him for a very long time," Anderson said. "... I wrote him and asked him if he would consider having a show. I told him that I really wanted my students to see his work, and it's true, I do. His work is so alive."

KPC students who study the paintings can add themselves to the long list of artists who credit Combs as a teacher or mentor. He's taught formally and influenced informally artists around the state and Outside.

Combs said that, rather than some painting technique or expressionistic style, he hopes he's passed on his work ethic to others.

"I think what I try to put into most people's minds is you've got to work. If you don't work, you don't do anything, or go anyplace. You don't let one day go by without doing something. If you don't work, you don't know what you're doing most of the time. You have to experience it. That's the theory I've always had about it."

Combs has lived by that theory in his many pursuits in earning a living — including as a Cook Inlet commercial fisherman — and as an artist. Combs said he works on his art every day, whether it's painting or sculpting for hours or just contemplating what he's done.

"It may not be much, just standing and looking at it a while, but I always spend an hour or so a day looking at my art," he said.

No matter what he thinks of his art, when other people look at it, Combs wants them to form their own opinions.

"I always like to have people look at my work and decide what they like or dislike or anything else on their own," he said. "So many people ask me, 'Why did you do this, why did you do that?' I always tell them, 'Decide for yourself.' We all come from different backgrounds, different ways of looking at things. You can't paint for anybody, you can only paint for yourself. ...

"I'm a great believer in saying what you think. My way of saying is through my art."

At 86, after decades of working on his art every single day, Combs has a lot to say.

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