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Kesler Woodward

A Sense of Wonder: Alaskan Art

The history of Native art in Alaska goes back millennia and dwarfs the shorter-term, smaller-scale accomplishments of the mostly non-Native artists who have devoted themselves to painting, drawing, and sculpture in Alaska since European contact in 1741. But while this new tradition may pale beside the richness of timeless Native cultures, it has its own abundant story. The element that links all the diverse work in that 160-year history is the sense of wonder.

A look at Alaskan paintings across that century and a half reveals the ability of artists to evoke that sense of wonder, and the capacity of this place to inspire it, but it also makes clear what a dangerous double-edged sword the sense of wonder can be, and how it can rob Alaskan art of the very magic that it initially inspires.

Barry Glacier

Barry Glacier. Entrance to Harriman Fiord, Prince William Sound, painted by R. Swain Gifford.
Click image for a larger view.

Wonder was alive and well in the work of some of the late eighteenth and early nineteen century artists who accompanied the first European voyages of exploration to Alaska. John Webber, Louis Choris, Mikhail Tikhanov and others were keen observers of ethnographic detail, depicting Alaska's Native people as individuals--not really understanding them in their cultural context, but treating them with respect.

Other images from the era, however, lack that sense. Some were produced by artists lacking sensitivity or skill, but most come from the hands of engravers and lithographers who, working from the artists' original sketches in European studios, produced the works which were used to illustrate the published accounts of those early voyages. A comparison of on-site drawings with published prints reveals many such disparities. Second-hand wonder is more subject to reliance on stereotype, and such stereotypes are often demeaning. One of the most obvious limitations of wonder is that it doesn't travel well.

In contrast to the hazards faced by artists on early exploring expeditions, by the 1880s painters like Theodore Richardson could cruise by steamer up the Inside Passage to Sitka, and visit and paint both the Native people and the landscape in relative comfort. Richardson began by painting the still somewhat exotic Native people of Southeast Alaska, but in his work they have already become just one picturesque aspect of exotic Alaska, souvenirs to be brought back by the artist's brush. The Native Alaskan, as a subject for the non-Native artist, changed in the first century and a half of contact from being a source of wonder to a source of curiosity, or merely picturesque interest.

If in the late nineteenth century this transition is quite subtle, it is no longer subtle in our own day. A cursory examination of the images of Native Alaskans in Alaskan gift shops, galleries, coffee table books, and literature reveals a common reliance on stereotype, and few traces of the kind of wonder that impelled the work of artists in the first generations of Alaskan contact.

There are exceptions, of course. The earliest Alaskan works of Fred Machetanz, now perhaps Alaska's most beloved and widely admired traditional painter, are as powerful images of the wonder of cultural contact as any image of an 18th century explorer artist. Another example is the best work of the late painter Claire Fejes, whose paintings of Native women involved in their everyday tasks often have the same kind of connection and unromantic celebration of "the other," that Louis Choris and others demonstrated almost two centuries before.

Not surprisingly, most of those artists who respond in powerful, original ways to Alaska Native culture today are of Native ancestry themselves. Glen Simpson, a Fairbanks metalsmith who is of both pioneer Canadian and Tahltan Indian heritage, pays homage in wholly modern implements of ebony and silver to the craftsmen among his Northwest Coast forbears who fashioned similar potlatch spoons of mountain goat and sheephorn. Alutiiq artist Alvin Amason makes work not overtly about Native people or their artifacts at all, but which speaks at once both humorously and eloquently about the animals he learned to hunt and respect as a young Native man.

In the rarity of such examples, however, another of the limitations of wonder as a tool for artmaking is apparent. It can be dulled by familiarity and overuse. It is always easier to connect to an existing visual tradition than to find one's own, easier to rely on stereotype than to refuse to do so. Maintaining the sense of wonder today requires both will and ingenuity, or a willingness to embrace a different, fresh subject.

Theodore Richardson and other painters began to make that choice in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, focusing on the landscape rather than relegating it to a mere backdrop for ethnographic portrayal. The mid-19th century saw the flowering of the American landscape painting tradition, and energetic, ambitious artists visiting the territory of Alaska were well aware of such developments and eager to adapt these new styles to the Alaskan landscape.

Most of the early landscape painters in the Territory were either tourists or travelers who were here for other purposes. By the last decades of the 19th century, however, a few artists began to come to Alaska specifically to paint. Adventurous American artists, no longer content with the splendors of the American West, began to visit Alaska in search of new landscape material.

The work of some of those visitors reveals two more limitations of wonder as a painting tool. The first is saleability. Wonder successfully captured is highly marketable, but painting for that ready market is not conducive to the maintenance of the sense of wonder itself. Many artists, then as now, worked out ways to capture the Alaskan landscape on his canvas and became content to turn out pictures by formula.

A second pitfall is almost the opposite of the first. In an excess, rather than a lack of ambition, artists may be led by the grandeur of their subject to attempt a grandness of vision not matched by their skills. It is in the leap from genre to symbol that many artists fail.

A few 19th century visitors did have the vision and skills to make that leap. Among the first were William Keith and Thomas Hill, perhaps the most highly regarded painters in California in the late 19th century. The paintings made by Keith on a cruise through Southeastern Alaska in 1886 are perhaps the first Alaskan paintings to be inspired by, rather than simply descriptive of, the Alaskan landscape. The equally celebrated California painter Thomas Hill came to Alaska just a year later, completing a commission to paint Muir Glacier for John Muir.

The gift of wonder reaches its apotheosis in Alaskan landscape painting, however, with the work of Rockwell Kent some three decades later. In search of peace in a world of turmoil, the artist and his young son spent the winter of 1918-19 on Fox Island in Resurrection Bay, near Seward. Reading Nietsche and Blake and reveling in the isolation and dramatic setting, Kent produced canvases combining for the first time his wonder at both the natural world and the human spirit.

Resident painters also discovered wonder in the landscape, and the limitations of its usefulness. The first professionally trained painter to make Alaska his long-term home was Sydney Laurence, Alaska's most beloved historical painter. The wonder he expressed in the early work following his arrival in 1904 would often be recycled in his later years, and too infrequently supplanted by freshly experienced scenes, but it is important to acknowledge his legacy. He created, rather than adopted, the image of Alaskan landscape that has become a stereotype today.

Laurence did not eliminate human traces in his work, but made them small, dwarfing them in the landscape in such a way that the dominance of the land over man was made clear. By depicting humans in an earlier, more subordinate relationship to the mountains, the sea, and the cold, he allowed a few more generations to feel the magic of the frontier. That image of Alaska as the frontier, and Alaskans as pioneers, shaped the way Americans, and even Alaskans themselves, see this land today.

It also shaped Alaskan painting, and one way of talking about all subsequent Alaskan landscape painting is to ask whether each painter chooses to search for a new image of this land and relationship to it, or to look back and preserve the image inherited from Sydney Laurence. Examples of both are available in the galleries throughout Alaska today. Many accomplished paintings continue to celebrate Laurence's image of Alaska as a land of pioneers, and Alaska as the frontier.

Mountain

Denali Park September, 2000. Painted by Kesler Woodward.
Click image for a larger view.

In the work of some contemporary Alaskan landscape painters, however, an image seems to be growing which in its essence is a rival to Laurence's. In some of that work, the artist seems to have come full circle, to have returned to the status of visitor. The focus is perhaps changing from Sydney Laurence's image, which put the emphasis on man as pioneer, to a newly rediscovered image of man as visitor in a place of wonder.


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