New book about Alaskan artists an in-depth look at state's creative wealth

Posted: Thursday, September 28, 2000

Considering the fact that so many people, many of them artists, move to Alaska for its extreme beauty, it is not surprising that a book about Alaska's artists has emerged.

What is surprising is that these artists, including their life histories and accomplishments, photos of their works and even tidbits of information about the techniques they used, can be fit into 111 pages.

Read from cover to cover, Alaska Geographic's latest publication, "Painting Alaska," is a tight conglomeration of names and biographies that span the history of the land in a manner akin to a college textbook.

But consumed in smaller sections, the issue is an in-depth look at the diversity of Alaska's creative wealth, past and present.

The issue is written by Kesler Woodward, a retired University of Alaska Fairbanks art professor and artist, who tackles the daunting task of documenting notable Alaska painters going back as far as possible to the days when artists were paid to document Native cultures.

As Woodward points out in his prologue, the many paintings in the book must be looked at from the perspective of the artist. To a casual observer, for example, the literal documentary style adopted by Karl Fortess, an artist commissioned by the Works Progress Administration to publicize Alaska by painting it, might suggest that the artist failed to see the beauty of the land. To the contrary, the artist revealed his true feelings 50 years later.

"The country itself ... it's grand. It is so damn grand. It is so much grandeur that it is impossible to encapsulate that either in words or in a painting. ... I was overimpressed by it, and it is very hard to look at something with your mouth open and at the same time, try to think in technical terms: how do you control this image, how do you present it," Fortess said.

Woodward explains well the many unique trials that northern painters face. From frozen fingers and tenacious mosquitoes to a constant need for more white paint, the artists pay for the astounding surroundings. But the paintings they produce are well worth the anguish, as one can see from thumbing through "Painting Alaska."

The book starts off with Fortess and the other artists from whom historians have been able to glean valuable information about early Native traditions and lifestyles. From there, Woodward moves to modern day Native images, such as the works of Rie Munoz and Barbara Lavallee, as well as the Native artists' own interpretations of their culture.

"Painting Alaska" refuses to dwell on stereotypical images of Alaska art from the start, including the contemporary artists who challenge the boundaries of culture and tradition. An example is Dan DeRoux and his painting "Aleut Explorer," which depicts an Aleut man at the house of Danish explorer Vitus Bering.

Woodward then moves on to divide artists up by their subjects of choice, be that landscapes, wildlife or Alaska life in general.

Alaska's landscapes have naturally inspired a plethora of art, and this issue strives to provide the reader with a mix of interpretations, from realism in both expansive and microscopic images to abstract.

The author, who peppers his documentary-style writing with critiques and observations, notes a modern-day love affair with the Brooks Range and other lesser known environments in Alaska.

"The Brooks Range is perhaps becoming the kind of attraction for outstanding American artists that Alaska has been since the late 19th century," he writes.

Animals, as synonymous with Alaska as mountains, make up another chapter of "Painting Alaska," and once again, while the bears, for example, are the same, their portraits differ dramatically from artist to artist based on perspectives.

"A hunter can't help painting a caribou in a different way than a nonhunter, as each sees a different creature on the tundra, judges its sex, maturity and distance in a different manner and admires the creature in a different way," Woodward writes.

The final section of "Painting Alaska" focuses on the many artists' renderings of life in the northern state, from the portrait of Alaska life depicted in Alex Combs' "Fish Camp" to the modern "Chair and Flowers in an Empty Room," by Carol Bryner. The final chapter also dabbles in the abstract images of various Alaska artists.

Many familiar names can be found in the text, including Diana Tillion and Gary Lyon, and there is even mention of Bunnell Street Gallery in Homer, but the book focuses more on the work of the individual than the community which they are from.

Included in "Painting Alaska" are interesting sidebars on everything from what determines the value of a painting to a wonderful anecdote by painter Mary Beth Michaels about painting outside.

Overall, Woodward provides an amazing amount of varied information as well as accompanying art on a subject that should really be packaged in a large coffee table book. After all, it's a big state.

Carey Restino is a reporter for the Homer News.

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