Alaska artist Fred Machetanz dies

Posted: Monday, October 07, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska's most identifiable and honored artist, Frederick Machetanz, died Sunday at Valley Hospital in Palmer. He was 94.

In an art career spanning nearly seven decades, Machetanz built a reputation first as an illustrator, then as the last of Alaska's ''old masters.'' He developed an international clientele that paid six figures for his paintings and an even larger fan base that could not afford the originals but eagerly acquired reproductions.

Machetanz took his subjects from Grand Alaskana -- wildlife, dog teams, old-timers, Native people and vast landscapes -- robust in mood and filled with authentic details.

His distinctive technique involved a multistep process of painting the entire canvas blue and letting it dry before beginning to paint in the subject. The overlaying captured the atmosphere of the high Arctic and the clean coldness of Alaska's skies and water.

Born in Kenton, Ohio, on Feb. 20, 1908, Machetanz excelled in track and football as a youth. But by the time he entered Ohio State University in 1926, he was honing his skills as a draftsman and illustrator. Intrigued by visual art, he made visits to leading illustrators Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth and Maxfield Parrish.

After graduating from Ohio State with a master's degree in art in 1935, he took a vacation to see his uncle, Charles Traeger, who operated a trading post in Unalakleet. The ''vacation'' never ended; young Fred became a permanent Alaskan.

In Unalakleet he observed Native Alaskans. Many of his paintings of later years were portraits of Natives or depictions of village life. In 1939 he wrote a children's book based on his village experience, ''Panuck, Eskimo Sled Dog.'' The book was a staple in Alaska schools before statehood.

More adult fare followed in 1940 with ''On Arctic Ice,'' which he wrote and illustrated, and two children's sports books, ''Tommy Carries the Ball'' and ''Steady, a Baseball Story,'' which he illustrated.

From 1942-45 he served as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, assigned as an intelligence officer to the North Pacific Command. After the war, he used his G.I. Bill benefits to study lithography at the Arts Students League in New York.

In 1946 he met Sara Dunn, a publicist for RCA records, on holiday in Alaska. They married in 1947 and became collaborators in film and publishing projects. In 1949 they were commissioned to make a color documentary by the territorial government. Another documentary was commissioned by Disney in 1955.

In 1951 they moved to an undeveloped piece of wilderness near Palmer that Machetanz dubbed High Ridge. They built a tiny cabin, Fred digging the foundation by hand, Sara peeling the logs. The residence expanded over the years, and it remained their home for the rest of his life. They deeded several acres on the ''view side,'' where Machetanz's easel was set up in front of large pane windows, to the University of Alaska with the proviso that the property remain undeveloped.

Throughout the 1950s, the couple worked in Alaska in summer and toured the Lower 48 with their movies, books and lectures in winter. But in 1959, the year Alaska became a state, their only child, Traeger, was born and the family had to find a more stable source of income.

Since the 1940s, Machetanz had produced limited editions of stone lithographs, two each year. They had not brought in much money but had gained him influential admirers in Alaska, including banker Elmer Rasmuson and publisher Robert Atwood. They ''grubstaked'' him to take a year off and concentrate on painting.

On April 21, 1962, he exhibited the fruits of that sabbatical in a solo show at the Anchorage Westward Hotel. Of 44 paintings, 24 sold in the first few hours and Machetanz realized that he could make a living as a full-time painter.

More sales and honors began to come his way. He was named a professor of art by the University of Alaska. In 1966 he was elected to the Alaska Hall of Fame, named Alaskan of the Year in 1977, Artist of the Year by American Artist magazine in 1981, and awarded an honorary doctorate by his alma mater, Ohio State, in 1984.

He continued to be a knowledgeable fan of football and an active booster of the high school team in Palmer, where his son played. The town responded by naming its football field in his honor.

Machetanz was preceded in death by his wife, Sara, in 2001. He is survived by his son and daughter-in-law, Traeger and Carolyn, and grandchildren Alexandra and Olivia, all of Seattle.

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