Kenai couple's artistic gifts enrich communities of central peninsula

Posted: Sunday, November 11, 2001

Ricky Gease and Bunny Swan have more in common than having bird-sounding last names, although it makes for a good wedding joke.

"My favorite joke about our marriage is if we had any children they would all be ugly ducklings," Bunny said.

They both are artistic, have a strong belief in family, participate in and support the arts in their community and share hopes for the future of the Kenai Peninsula.

Ricky is the manager of exhibits and education for the Kenai Cultural and Visitors Center. He is responsible for bringing in and creating exhibits for the center, managing the center's permanent collection and promoting educational programs at the center.

"That's our mission, to provide the city and community with cultural activities and programs and to promote the culture and history of, primarily, the Kenai and, secondarily, the state," he said.

These activities, according to Bunny, have caused the community to be more active and involved in the arts. Ricky was awarded a distinguished service award this fall from the Alaska Arts Education Association for his efforts at the center. Ricky, as modest as his wife is extolling, responded to praise of his work by complimenting the support and competence of the center's staff.

"(The center has) played a big part in the community realizing how many artists we have," Bunny said. "Even as a professional artist, I didn't know the number of artists we have here. And from being involved with Ricky in the center, it is really amazing -- people are coming out of the woodwork. Even my neighbor. I've lived here for 12 years and just found out he's an artist."

The Geases feel art is an important part of any community, and show that belief by their involvement. Bunny is a professional artist in many mediums, including, among others, music, painting and beading.

"Arts and culture is important," Ricky said. "Crafting and hobbies are a healthy strategy to living in Alaska. To have something outside of work, whether through sports or arts or getting involved, I think it's a sign of a healthy individual that they can step out and interact with the community. I think we have a great sense of community in Alaska."

Ricky's background doesn't seem to lend itself as neatly to the arts as Bunny's does. He is originally from Wisconsin and went to college at Stanford University in California. He received a master's degree in biology from Stanford and spent three years traveling around the world after graduation. He taught science in private schools in New York, Maine and California.

After being a science teacher, Ricky started working for parks programs. He was working at Yosemite National Park when he became interested in coming to the Kenai Fjords National Park in Seward. He moved to Seward 10 years ago and worked as a park ranger in the interpretive division, which Ricky called the "storytelling division." When his current position at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center came up about three years ago, he took it and moved to Kenai.

Someone with an education in biology and a history as a science teacher wouldn't ordinarily be pegged as the artistic type, but Ricky says he enjoys the arts. He is a songwriter, collaborating with Bunny on several songs. They wrote one called "My Jacket," another called "Strangers" and another called "Sydney," written for and about a friend of Ricky's.

"Ricky is an absolutely marvelous writer," Bunny said.

Ricky also has taken up beading and created the headdress Bunny wore at their wedding. His creative energy is going toward building a garage at the moment, but he plans to bead more headdresses after that project is complete -- which may not be until their 10th anniversary, in four years, he joked.

"I think arts are a primary from of human expression and that we have great artists in Alaska," Ricky said."

One of those artists is Bunny. She plays guitar and drums, sings and writes songs. Bunny was nominated for a Native American Music award and a Culture-Bearer award from the Alaska Federation of Natives this year.

She is a visual artist in many mediums. She paints glass and designed some of the banners that hang on roadside light poles in Kenai and Soldotna, including one of a swan and goose that represents she and Ricky.

Bunny paints designs on walls and hires herself out to paint bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens in area businesses, bed and breakfasts and homes.

Bunny also cultivates an interest in photography and describes herself as an avid amateur photographer, though not a technical one.

"You point and shoot," Ricky said.

"I do," Bunny answered with a smile.

Cultural and traditional beading is a hobby and passion of Bunny's, which shows in the elaborate pins, hair clips, pendants, boxes and other pieces she creates. Bunny also designed the wedding rings she and Ricky wear, which bear their swan-goose emblem.

According to Bunny, she has been doing arts forever. She was born in Anchorage, moved to Moose Pass and graduated from Kenai Central High School. After high school, she traveled a great deal and played a lot of contemporary music, she said.

While she was traveling and playing in clubs, Bunny found she needed extra money so turned to her painting. Her sister Boots Swan also is an artist and painter and was more established than Bunny at that time, so Bunny enlisted her aid to get started.

"I asked to borrow her photos so I could go get some jobs. I told her I would turn the pages really fast," Bunny said, so no one would know the pictures weren't of work Bunny had done.

As for a "real, 9-to-5 job," Bunny said she has had two. One was decorating cakes in a bakery.

"I got demoted for taking too long," she said. "I decorated the cakes with my own fantastic designs."

Which were beautiful, she said, but apparently not what the bakery owner had in mind.

"You didn't bring in the money, babe," Ricky teased. "You didn't make the bucks."

The other job was working in a hospital cafeteria. She got demoted again for sending a patient a note in a hot dog.


Bunny Swan Gease dresses up a window at Kenai Municipal Airport several winters ago.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

"(The patient) liked it, but it was not a 'hygienic thing to do' so I got in trouble," Bunny said.

So Bunny has remained an artist instead of pursuing a different career route.

"Art is a great place for me," she said. "I prefer what I'm doing now. I have a great balance with performance and visual art."

Bunny began playing more traditional music after doing a soundtrack for a film. She had been performing in Seattle when she got a request to come back to Kenai and create the music for a film called "Tubughna The Beach People, an Alaskan Story of the Native Village of Tyonek" a documentary about Tyonek that parallels Native cultures across the country, Bunny said. The experience inspired her and connected her to her roots, she said.

Currently, Bunny is involved in several programs. She did eight family-oriented performances last November for the Imagination Celebration, a program supported through the John F. Kennedy Center Alliance for Arts and Education in Washington, D.C. She serves on the state Alliance for Arts Education board of directors.

She also is involved in a summer Native youth camp based out of Juneau through the Southeast Regional Resource Center. The purpose of the camp, called Answer Camp, is to bring science and the arts together and to give a Native context for the integration of math and science.

Bunny's main involvement at the moment is with an artist in residence program, sponsored by the Alaska State Council on the Arts. In the program, area artists spend one to two weeks in schools and share their art with the students. The programs can involve music, carving, basket weaving, quilting or whatever the artist desires. Bunny's program is called "Ancient Voices, Future Visions."

"It's really about retaining our culture through our art and education," she said. "It has to do with our past and ancestors and grandparents and elders who try to educate us in the ways of the world and do it through storytelling and oral tradition. It continues to be so in all families across the country."

The program includes music, visual art and cultural stories and is culturally based with information about Dena'ina and Athabaskan history. Bunny uses stories passed down from the late elder Peter Kalifornsky and others, including one her mother, Clare Swan, wrote called "Once Upon a Dena'ina Time," which describes dragons that live in Mount Redoubt and cause it to erupt by having steam baths.

Ricky and Bunny first met at a conference seven years ago.

It was one of those love-at-first-sight things, Bunny said.

"We were the talk of the conference, we decided right then and there to get married," she said.

But they waited a year before tying the knot, following the advice that they should know someone through all the seasons before getting married.

The couple enjoys married life together. In popular culture, marriage is often seen as being a shackle, Ricky said, but that's not how it really works.

"If anything it's been an unshackling of what you want in life and love and happiness," he said. "It's having a home where you can learn about yourself and the primary person in your life."

The two celebrate their anniversary by having a "cake launch" at Cunningham Park every September. The bake and decorate a cake and send it floating down the river on a raft. The ceremony is a tradition for them to give away the negatives of the past year and welcome new beginnings.

Ricky and Bunny underwent a new beginning in their lives when they invited Bunny's great aunt Nancy Hufana to come live with them.

"I think having adopted auntie, that's been an adjustment for Ricky and I," Bunny said. "We're very happy that we make that choice because we'd be worried about her anywhere else."

Hufana shares Bunny's enjoyment of making music and the two rehearse together five days a week. Bunny plays the guitar and Hufana keeps the beat on a complete drum set.

"It helps her physically and gives her mental stimulation and creativity," Bunny said. "Much of her favorite music is country -- like Hank Williams and Patsy Kline. She'll say 'Let's play one more snappy one,'" and that means one more 'Cheating Heart,' faster."

Ricky and Bunny kept their aunt's needs in mind when they remodeled their home, making everything wheelchair accessible. Ricky has persuaded his parents to move to Kenai when they retire and is designing a home for them that will fit their needs.

Seeing to the needs of their elders is something that goes along with being in the "sandwich generation," as Ricky calls it -- the age group that has both children and elders that need care.

"It's a huge investment to take care of people," he said. "But it's becoming more common, and it's something that the Kenai Peninsula needs to think about -- providing more assisted living.

"Not every family is as blessed as we are (in being able to provide care). We should look for assisted living as a major piece of the puzzle that keeps communities together. It's an area people need to think about for the future."

A civic center is another piece of the puzzle for Kenai's and the central peninsula's future development, Ricky said. The area needs a place where the community can come together and have a collective identity by sharing experiences, like large-scale cultural, musical and theatrical events, he said.

Ricky said he would like to see a center in Old Town Kenai that encompasses the cultural center, library, arts studios and an architectural repository.

Good communication and community involvement are the other pieces the Geases would like to see fall into place for the future of the area.

Just because the peninsula has a small population is no reason for there not to be a lot of involvement.

"That doesn't mean people are less active," Ricky said. "In some ways they're more active. Citizens are becoming actively engaged in the planning and development process for the peninsula. We all participate in what we want to see for the future of the community."

Being able to communicate effectively is crucial for community involvement to be beneficial.


Ricky Gease fields questions from grade school children during a class tour of last summer's Fish Odyssey art show at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.

Clarion file photo

"People should learn all the communication skills possible," Bunny said. "Then all the exchange of information will be successful. It's a big part of the experience, if you wish to be heard, skills of communication are very necessary."

Ricky feels the community should come together now and discuss what it wants for the future. Issues like the expanding population, creating jobs to attract younger workers and supporting the economy should be discussed so those decisions are easier to make when the time comes.

"I hope in 10 years that we have a viable productive community," Ricky said. "We have a very diverse economy and, hopefully, we'll have the insight and leadership for that to grow."

Reaching out to the younger generation and getting them involved civically and politically would serve the community well, Ricky said.

"Now is the time to be open-minded and to listen to fresh ideas and weigh them," Bunny added.

"The people who are in charge now may not be with us as leaders in the future," Ricky said. "So hopefully we will have another generation coming up that loves this place. It's nice for new ideas to have a welcome seat at the table. It shows the health of our community that we do welcome new ideas."

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