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KPC professor follows Alaska dream with his camera in hand

For the love of art

Posted: Sunday, September 09, 2001

Although we all dream of working at a job we love, Gary Freeburg's work requires doing what he loves.

Freeburg is the director of the Kenai Penin-sula College Art Gallery and a professor of art at the college.

He is the man behind all the art shows.

Despite having dedicated himself to art for 30 years, Freeburg did not plan to become an artist as a child. Instead, he discovered it by accident and fell in love.

"It just becomes a passion, and you follow the passion."

He graduated from high school in 1966 and went to college right away. Since his father was a businessman, he decided to pursue a business degree.

However, he changed his mind one day while taking a short cut through the art building.

"Students were walking around, talking and drinking coffee and drawing, and it was so different from what I was used to," Freeburg said.

He signed up for a beginning drawing class and soon found his path in life.

"It was always something that nobody told me that I couldn't do," he said.

He chose to focus on photography.

However, his education was interrupted when he was drafted near the beginning of his junior year.

Freeburg spent six years in the U.S. Navy, working with electricity, electronics and special weapons. He completed two tours in Vietnam.

After finishing active duty, he returned to school, completing a bachelor's degree in photography and drawing.

He continued studying, obtaining a master's in arts in 1977 and a master's in fine arts in 1978. He worked at various temporary jobs, gaining experience where he could.

 

Freeburg carries a pair of framed photographs home after a day at KPC. The images are from a project that documents the landscape at the Valley of 10,000 Smokes.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

Unfortunately, there was not much work for artists in universities at the time, he said.

Freeburg began to think about a picture of Mount McKinley his grandfather had shown him when he was 8. His grandfather had said that he himself would never get to Alaska, but if Freeburg ever got the chance, he should go.

Freeburg took his grandfather's advice and arrived in Sitka in 1980 with a backpack and $60 in his pocket.

"I got off the plane, and it had just rained. ... It was just the most beautiful place in the world," he said.

Almost immediately, he found work as an adjunct faculty member at Islands College. He also worked as a graphic artist for Sheldon Jackson College.

In 1982, the position of art director at Kenai Peninsula College opened. Freeburg was hired and began to work on building the art program.

Boyd Shaffer already was at the college and had gotten the art program moving, he said.

KPC was a two-year college at the time, with a focus on vocational and industrial training.

"Arts and sciences were sort of a 'trailer' to the vocational programs," Freeburg said.

Many of the courses would not transfer to other schools, so Freeburg traveled to other universities around the state to coordinate more universal courses. He wrote curriculum and the university shifted its position to make the program more appealing to students.

He also helped obtain support to build the art gallery at the college.

"That's one of the major things on this campus that has created a lot of interest," he said.

It is one of the things in which he takes pride.

He said he receives positive feedback and gets excited about each show.

"It's like Christmas to me eight times a year, because the box shows up and you never know what's going to be inside," he said.

 

Sarah Glaves discusses her degree program with Kenai Peninsula College professor Gary Freeburg in his office.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

Since he began at the college, the program has grown. In the 1980s, there were six or seven art students; now there are 20 or 30.

"You can see progress. It's like doing a painting or drawing. ... It's just wonderful to see change in not only yourself, but in your students," he said.

Art is not Freeburg's only love, however.

When asked about his hobbies, he has a ready answer.

"I sail. When I went in the Navy, that's one thing I fell in love with, is the sea," he said.

Sailing is what he does to relax. The quiet and solitude help keep things in perspective.

"Art and sailing are sort of very similar to me. My life moves so quickly ... that's how I sort of balance my life," Freeburg said.

He has spent extra hours trying to finish the studio he has been adding on to his house. The presence of building materials in his work area doesn't bother him, however.

"I think every house in Alaska, it's sort of like a work in progress," he said.

Whenever possible, Freeburg spends time on the computer or the telephone talking with his wife and two daughters.

Freeburg's wife, Kathy Schwartz, took a position as the director of the art education program at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., last year. She had turned down several offers in recent years before deciding to accept one near her parents' home in Washington, D.C., he said.

Freeburg is proud of his wife's accomplishments, saying she is setting up one of the top programs on the East Coast. His daughters -- Andrea, 13, and Ava, 11 -- are active in music and theater.

He said he hopes to join them permanently within a year or two. In the meantime, he flies to Virginia three or four times a year.

One positive outcome of spending his evenings alone is that the last year has been quite productive for him, Freeburg said. He has taken a large number of photographs of the Valley of 10,000 Smokes.

Some of the images have been accepted for publication as a book. The book is being published by Johns Hopkins University for the Center for American Places.

Thirty more of Freeburg's pictures of the valley are part of a show touring through several colleges in the United States.

Most of his photographs are done in black and white, although he has worked with a lot of color photographs during his time as a graphic artist.

 

Kenai Peninsula College professor Gary Freeburg moistens a brush while retouching dust spots on photographs in his studio at home.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

The pictures often have a scientific nature.

"I always like to have a tie-in a little bit with the sciences, ... but I also like to make it artistic enough that anybody could find merit (in it)," said Freeburg.

For the upcoming year, Freeburg plans to continue promoting the KPC art department and the community in general.

"All I'm really trying to do is improve my own environment, and I do that through arts and teaching," he said.

Teaching has been a source of great rewards for him. He has taken over teaching art history at the college, with a goal to make it interesting for the students.

While he provides the information about when and how a piece of art was created, he also tries to tell the story behind the art. Students seem to be more interested when they learn about the artist's life as well, he said.

"The greatest pride that I take is probably in students coming back and showing me their work," said Freeburg.

"The students have changed a lot, too."

Many more students are pursuing degrees outside of the vocational fields that were initially the focal point of the college. Some of the courses have changed, as well.

This year, Freeburg is consolidating four classes -- beginning drawing, intermediate drawing, advanced drawing and experimental drawing -- into one. He has high hopes the students will learn from each other, he said.

Although he eventually plans to move to join his family, the peninsula continues to be one of Freeburg's favorite places.

"I love it here. It's just a wonderful place to be," he said.

Next summer, Freeburg hopes to finish photographing the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Then he will turn his attention to the Aleutian Islands.

"It's pretty exciting to have the opportunity for choices," he said.

After he leaves Alaska, he will continue to work in the art field.

"You don't really retire from art. Old age and retirement just aren't options."



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