Randall Compton

Alaskan Art and the Sense of Wonder

Kesler Woodward



If there is a single element that links all Alaskan art-historical and contemporary. Native and non-Native, landscape and portrait and narrative and abstraction-it is the sense of wonder Wonder at this land. its spirits. and its people. We recognize that sense of marvel at the world of the spirits when we peer at the 2000 year-old Okvik Madonna-perhaps the world's preeminent surviving Eskimo ivory carving-in its case at the University of Alaska Museum today. We feel it. too, when we encounter evocations of similar spirits in the work of contemporary Native Alaskan artists The cultural strength and continuity of the Inupiat people is alive in the carved panels of Eskimo artist Ron Senungetuk,whose immaculate craftsmanship weds ancient images to modern materials and pictorial forms.

Contemporary Aleut artist Jacob Simeonoff makes bentwood hunting huts in the style of his seafaring ancestors. Glen Simpson a Fairbanks metalsmith who is of Tahitan/Kaska Indian heritage. pays homage in pieces like his Spruce Grouse Rattle to his Athubuskun and Northwest Coast forebears who fashioned ceremonial rattles of somewhat different form, but similar concept. And Alvin Amason, an Aleut artist originally from Kodiak Island, makes work not overtly about Native Alsskan culture 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. Amuson's animals, not slavishly rendered but captured in their essence in a thoroughly contemporary psinterly style, are alive in a way that only one who "grew up with those beasts," as he would say, could make them.

But the sense of wonder is not limited to Native Alaskan artists. We see it in the work of artists who came and continue to come here from every part of the globe It's what we respond to in the work of artists who accompanied the first European explorers to Alaska in the mid- eighteenth century. It's the sense that those artists. who were trying their best to do what they were told -- to document without embellishment, to record what the people. the habitations. the implements of daily living. and the flora and the fauna of the region looked like -were just knocked out by what they saw They were trying their best to deal with the fact that this first contact with the land and Native people of Alaska had rocked their view of the world. When that sense of wonder got into their art work. the results were extraordinary.

This gift of wonder is what is shared in the best art of Alaska, not just the work of Native carvers and early European visitors. but the work of every exceptional artist who has encountered this landscape and these cultures. With the gift, however, comes a caution. When we look at the vast range of Alaskan images around us today. and when we reflect on the historical images from which they have grown. we not only celebrate the ability of artists to evoke wonder. and the ability of this place we live in to inspire it. We also see what a dangerous double-edged sword this sense of wonder can be. and how it often robs our art of the very magic that it initially inspires.

To appreciate the best art of Alaska and to begin to understand the connections between its historical and contemporary manifestations, it is important to examine both the strengths and the limitations of wonder as a motivating factor. To examine this double-edged sword. we turn to the two themes which have historically dominated Alaskan art-images of the Native Alaskan and images of the land.



We see the sense of wonder in the work of many of the artists who accompanied late eighteenth and early nineteenth century European explorers to Alaska The watercolors and sketches they made on those trips, and some of the engravings and lithographs based on those original works, convey the marvel of the European artists at these new lands, but their real focus is on the new people they encountered. The best of these artists were keen observers of the ethnographic details of clothing, dwellings, and artifacts, but we can also see in their pictures an attempt to make connection with the individuals they portrayed Native Alaskans in their images are individuals, still enigmatic, not really understood in their cultural context, but treated with the respect due people who lived in one of the most hostile environments on earth and adapted meager resources to thriving in such a place.

Other images from this era, however. lack that sense. Some of them were produced by the artist-observers themselves. out of insensitivity or lack of skill, but many of them come to us from the hands of engravers and lithographers who, working from the artists' original sketches in the relative comfort of their European studios, produced the works which were used to illustrate the published accounts of these early voyages. In the process of reworking, the cultural biases of the European artist-observers were often reinforced, and stereotypes of "primitive" peoples were perpetuated. Alaska Natives appear often as illformed children, or simply as Europeans thinly disguised by exotic clothing and ornamentation.

Such images lead us to one of our first discoveries about the limitations of wonder as a source of artmaking-that it doesn't travel well Second-hund wonder is almost never simply less magical, less wonderful, but is more likely twisted. and is much more subject to reliance on stereotype. We all see the world through personal and cultural filters, but the filters which compromised the original explorer-artist's vision often became blinders in the hands of the distant engraver-blocking out both truth and the original sense of wonder itself Already, then, we see that this business of wonder is not quite so simple as our original proposition-the notion that art. or at least great art. is born out of a sense of wonder-would have us believe. What we're going to find is that wonder is a fine motivator, but a terribly limited tool.


In the first decades after the purchase of Alaska from Russia by the U S. in 1867, boat traffic increased dramatically, and visitors begun arriving on regular steamship tours By the 1 880's both tourists and government officials in various capacities were regular visitors to Alaska's coastal communities from southeast Alaska to the Bering Sea Among them were competent artists who chose. on their own initiative, to make images of the still-exotic Native people of these coasts.

Their images at first seem very similar to those of the explorer-artists from up to a century before, but there are crucial differences Already by the lute nineteenth century, there is a kind of distance. a picturesqueness that we did not see in the work of early explorer-artists. Native people are no longer individuals with whom the artist is trying to make personal contact, no longer even exemplars of a wholly unknown culture that the artist is trying to fit with some difficulty into his world view Instead, they have already become, in most of these images. just one picturesque aspect of exotic Alaska. something to be rendered and remembered in their exoticism, an aide-memoire, or to use a more modern term, a souvenir. to be brought buck 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 In late nineteenth century images this transition is. I believe, unmistakable. but quite subtle It is no longer subtle in our own day.

In the time between that era and our own. the change has become much more obvious and much more dramatic Without singling out names of artists. I would simply ask you, the next time you have the opportunity, to examine in this light the images of Native Alaskans you see in Alaskan gift shops, galleries, coffee table books. and other sources today, to see how many traces you con find of the genuine, searching wonder of cultural contact.

I think that you will find that it is rare, but there is evidence of it in the work of a few artists in our own time. We see it in the best work of Fairbanks painter Claire Fejes, whose paintings of Native women involved in their everyday tasks often have the same kind of connection, the same kind of unromantic unpicturesque celebration of "the other" that explorer-artists incorporated almost two centuries before.We find it in the searching portrait of Eskimo storyteller James Nageak by Enid Cutler as well.

We see it, too. in the work of a few contemporary Alaskan photographers, perhaps most notably in James Barker's perceptive and compelling images of the Yup'ik people of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region. But such examples are all but drowned today in a sea of images of Native Alaskans ranging from stereotyped, to cute, to wholly exploitive What has gone wrong?


I think what we see here is another of the limitations of wonder as a tool for art making. It can be dulled, or completely worn out. Worn out not just by familiarity, by over use, by the sheer weight of imagery already in the mind's eye of the would-be maker of yet another image of the exotic Native, but by an unwillingness to exercise the will to keep the sense of wonder sharp. It is always easier to connect to an existing visual tradition than to find one's own. always easier to rely on stereotype than to refuse to do so.

Look again, in your mind's eye, at the typical image of Alaska Natives found in our gift shops. galleries, and bookstores Surely most of the purveyors of cute images of Native Alaskans didn't mean to trivialize their subject Surely they are not, by and large, cynical exploiters Certainly most of them do, or at least initially did, feel something much like the same sense of wonder early explorers felt when they first encountered the Native people they portrayed, and they began to make their pictures out of a genuine desire to express that wonder It is perhaps harder to find something new, personal, and full of wonder to say about Native Alaskans and their culture today than it was for the artists who first encountered these cultures. But if we as contemporary Alaskan artists do not have the ingenuity and the will to do so, then we should change our subject and our means to one for which we do.



Even more than pictures of Native Alaskans, images of the land scape dominate Alaskan art today. In this second major theme, we again find wonder at the source. and we again encounter its limitations Landscape succeeded Native people as the main subject for Alaskan art in the late nineteenth century Perhaps most European and American artists realized by the close of the nineteenth century that their pictures of Native people were increasingly picturesque and trivial, and that they needed to find a subject in which the wonder they felt could be given full rein, but an increasing focus on the landscape itself was typical of artists of the period The mid-19th century saw the great 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, as I have noted, tourists, or travelers who were here for other purposes, people like Henry Wood Elliott, the U.S Treasury Agent who almost singlehandedly saved the fur seal from extinction through his activism on their behalf with the U.S Government. Elliott traveled through the Pacific Northwest on his way to and from Alaska, painting Mt Rainier and other landmarks of that region, and in his many visits to Alaska he gave us some of our finest nineteenth century watercolors of the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands.

In these last decades of the nineteenth Century a few artists also began to come to Alaska specifically to paint This was an era in which adventurous American artists, no longer content with the splendors of the American West. begun to roam even farther afield, to Central and South America. to Africa, and also to Alaska in search of ever more dramatic landscape material Among the first were William Keith and Thomas Hill, perhaps the most highly regarded painters in California in the late nineteenth century and major national figures Painting along the coast of southeastern and southcentral Alaska, both experienced wonder at the Alaskan coastal landscape, and both had the requisite skills to capture that feeling and share it with their viewers. Other, lesser skilled artists came as well, some to succeed in modest aims, and some to encounter another of the limitations of wonder-that the ability to perceive grandeur does not necessarily come attached to the ability to achieve it.

Paintings of Alaska by its visitors reaches its zenith in the early years of the twentieth century In the winter of 1918-19, the artist Rockwell Kent visited Alaska for reasons quite different from any artist who had come before him Kent and his 9 year old son spent a winter on Fox Island, in Resurrection Bay, near Seward. in search of something more intangible than exotic scenery. His own words say it best:

The Northern Wilderness is terrible There is discomfort, even misery, in being cold The gloom of the long and lonely winter nights is appalling, and yet do you know I love this misery and court it Always I have fought and worked and played with a fierce energy and always as a man of flesh and blood and surging spirit I have burned the candle at both ends, and can only wonder that there has been left even a slender taper glow for art And so this sojourn in the wilderness is in no sense an artist's junket in search of picturesque material for brush or pencil, but the flight to feedom of a man who detests the endless petty quarrels and bitterness of the crowded world-the pilgrimage of a philosopher in quest of happiness and peace of mind. (Rockwell Kent. 1919. Alaska Drawings by Rockwell Kent, with a Letter from Rockwell Kent to Christian Brinton. New York: M. Knoedler and Co. Unpaginated)

While we may be uncomfortable with the romantic phrasing and the self-aggrandizement, I suspect those are sentiments many of us find resonant with our own reasons for coming to Alaska And the joy of Rockwell Kent's work is that we see those sentiments as boldly expressed in his art as in his words From the simple, unpretentious liveliness of his drawings of their cabin, to symbolic personifications of primal elements such as the North Wind, the Fox Island imagery is filled with wonder In the canvases he produced on the island or soon after his return, Kent found a way for the first time to get his sense of wonder at not just the natural world, but the human spirit, into his work.


Keith, Hill, and Kent, however successful at portraying the wonders of Alaska, were short term visitors. The first resident Alaskan painters arrived early in this century, among them such revered Alaska names as Sydney Laurence, Eustace Ziegler, Ted Lambert, Jules Dahluger, and Rusty Heurlin.

The first professionally trained painter to make Alaska his long-term home was the artist Sydney Laurence, the man who is unquestionably Alaska's most beloved historical painter Still little known outside Alaska, Laurence's name is a household word here, where his paintings are seen not only in museums, but in banks, hospitals, offices, private homes of longtime residents, and in countless reproductions Laurence's work sheds more light on the question of the power of wonder to motivate, and its limitations In his early paintings of Mt McKinley, from the teens and 1920's. we see marvelous, fresh, ambi tious attempts to come to grips artistically with North America's highest peak. The mountain in these paintings is already near the center of the canvas, but it often shares center stage with equally dramatic clouds and a sweeping foreground space that speaks as much of the mountain's majesty as does the peak's vertical rise. But in much of his later work, the mountain loses its individuality It loses its freshness and becomes an icon, something Laurence painted, and people sought, not because it was a wonderful painting, but because it was recognizably "The Mountain " The foreground wilderness, rather than being a source of wonder itself, becomes an impediment to be hastily brushed aside in the rush to get us. the viewers, to the peak.

By the mid-1930's, a decade after Laurence had quit being a full time resident of Alaska and was spending his winters making scores of Mt. McKinley paintings in his Los Angeles studio for Block's department stores in Illinois and other steady volume buyers, the image was almost used up - no longer full of wonder, but an empty, commercial husk. We see here another of the limitations of wonder as a tool for making art -its salability Wonder successfully captured is highly marketable. but painting for that ready market is not conducive to the genuine search which engenders and nourishes the sense of wonder itself.

While it's important to acknowledge Laurence's limitations, however, it is equally important to acknowledge his accomplishment and his legacy Laurence could, in moments of pure wonder, produce throughout his career quiet images that captured as well as anyone ever has the still, chill beauty of this land They are most often images free of grand gesture, but full of quiet marvel The best of his many images of the light, land, and water of Cook Inlet are about as evocative of place as paintings get Moreover, if his images of Mt McKinley, cabins and caches under the northern lights, and other subjects often seem stereotypic today. we must remember that he was the creator, not the imitator, of the stereotype.

But his real contribution, it seems to me, is what I have culled the image of "the lonely landscape." For Laurence, Alaska was immessurably greater than the humans who scrabbled about on it We see that in his paintings in the diminutive scale of human habitation, its vulnerability among the light and grandeur of the landscape. He produced that image not by eliminating human truces, but by juxtaposing them with the landscape in such a way that the dominance of the land over man was made clear. That predominance of land over man had been lost in the American West by his time, and in Alaska it was already under siege But by giving us that powerful image of humans in an earlier, more subordinate relationship to the mountains, the sea, the cold, and the northern lights, he allowed a few more generations to feel the magic of the frontier.

His work also shaped landscape painting in Alaska, In a very real way, every landscape painter in Alaska has had to choose, since his day, whether to follow Laurence's example or reject it, and it is important for us to recognize that the rejection of his image, conscious or unconscious, is as reflective of his importance as the adoption of it One way of talking about all subsequent Alaskan landscape painting is to define where each painter stands in relation to that divide-in a way whether each chooses to look forward, to look for a new image of this land and our relationship to it, or to look buck, to preserve the image of Alaska we inherited from Sydney Laurence.


Many familiar, successful contemporary landscape painters stand on the conservative side of that divide, acknowledging in their painting, as they do in their own words, that they seek to be the torch bearer half-a-century later not only of Laurence's image, but of his psinterly style But other contemporary Alaskan landscape painters stand on the far side of the divide. insisting in their work that the only true wonder lies in looking ahead, not looking back. Their work. all influenced by the Alaskan land. is as various in style as it is in intent.

Fred Machetanz's work has become itself an icon of romantic Alaska imagery, but he forged his strongly individual style not by following the artistic lead of Sydney Laurence, but by developing his own technique and vision His 1967 painting Sourdough Hotcakes shows him at his best, not reaching for grandiose symbol in his portrait of an Alaskan sourdough in camp, but content to capture the kind of moment -making flapjacks over the campfire-that makes up much of the everyday pleasure in such a life In similar fashion Marvin Mangus, who came to Alaska in 1947 and spent his first years here mapping and exploring the Arctic regions of Alaska for the U.S. Geological Survey and Atlantic Richfield Company. prides himself on his realism in such works as Russian Mission. At the same time very much aware of the abstraction inherent in all painting, he has said that he considers all his paintings as abstracts, and he is as unwilling to sacrifice his interest in color and psinterly surface as he is the realistic depiction of things.

The same might be said of contemporary realist painter Nancy Stonington, one of the most widely traveled of Alaskan landscape painters. who clearly enjoys the freshness and directness of her wstercolor medium as much as the scenery she so accurately captures. Her images are traditional, but they are personally observed and indebted more to her own experience than the style of any earlier muster Gail Niebrugge, another realist painter with a wide following, has made Alaska's Wronger- St Eliss region her artistic and physical home while developing a characteristic pointillist style that personalizes and brings to life the accurate topography of the landscapes she portrays.

Bill Brody, David Mollett, Jim Behlke, Marionette Stock, and Mary Beth Michaels are among the growing number of artists who have recently found fresh imagery in the still nearly pristine landscape of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Their work speaks more to the clear air, wide spaces. and strange optical phenomena that so overwhelm visitors to this unpegged part of Alaska than to the look of any individual peak. Larry Vienneau's panoramic images of the Yukon and Deborah Hayes' views of the Tanana River region reflect the character of the big river valleys of Alaska's interior. Ken DeRoux of Juneau and Mary Ver Hoef of Fairbanks both seem to have internalized the landscape in their recent work. painting not from photographs, direct observation, or even memory of a specific place. but from imagination, depicting the feel and the character of the land as much as its appearance.

Photographic representations of the Alaskan landscape abound. but only a small percentage of the countless published and unpublished photographs of Alaska escape the picturesque cliche. Included here are some of those who do. from the panoramic Cirkut prints of Myron Wright to the more intimate landscape views of Shelley Schneider and Nancy Rabener. The best Alaskan landscape photographs are as varied in visual character, and as various in their interpretive vision, as the best Alaskan paintings.

The animal life of the Alaskan landscape, a subject even easier prey to stereotype, is one that a few Alaskan artists have taken on with freshness, originality. and new insight as well. Todd Sherman's beautiful but eerie painted meditations on the melding of wolves and forest; fiber artist Fran Reed's use of salmon skins to create elegant organic containers; Randall Compton's raptors and migratory waterfowl; Charlotte Van Zant's tapestries and monoprints of birds and beasts; and Charles Mason's stunning portfolio of reindeer herding photographs are but a few of the diverse ways contemporary Alaskan artists are tapping personal sources of experience with the animal life of the North.

Much excellent contemporary work is difficult to connect specifically to the Alaskan land and its people. but from political/social commentary to color field abstraction, it is conditioned in part, as we are conditioned in part, by our Alaskan experience. We should not be surprised to hear such a connection acknowledged in the words of Keren Lowell, maker of the completely non-representational Gymnopedies:

Winter has also worked its way into this piece I have been profoundly affected by the way the landscape here is transformed and unified by the snow and cold. It is white, silver, vast, serene, and I feel quiet and small. All the important visual information in this piece has been given in two white panels, each with a faint net-like pattern. and the silver of the wires and frame.


In the best Alaskan contemporary work we see a sense of wonder, not unlike that which we sensed in the work of early explorer-artists -artists struggling to incorporate this still-new image into their view of the world and their place in it But I think we may see something more specific I think we may see being born in new Alaskan art an image which in its essence is a rival to Sydney Laurence's image of the frontier and of ourselves as pioneers.

I have said that Sydney Laurence enabled a few more genera tions of Alaskans to feel the magic of the frontier But the key word here is "frontier " However small Laurence felt people were in relation to the land, his image was by and large of men and women who came to stay. to settle, to pioneer. The whole notion of pioneering is dependent on the existence of a frontier. Inherent in it also is a sense of identification with the land. and at least collective ownership of it. Sydney Laurence's image of Alaska has, I believe, shaped more than any other artist's the way we Alaskans see ourselves and our land today.

Whether we see the land as something infinitely greater than ourselves, so in need of protection, or as something so much greater than ourselves that it does not need much protection. we identify ourselves as Alaskans, and we feel that we have made this land our own. We still, as a whole, see ourselves, or want to see ourselves, as pioneers - especially the vast majority of us who made a choice to come here- and we take great pride, most of us, in having a part in the shaping of what we now think of as "our" place.

But in much of the new art of Alaska, it seems to me that the artist has come full circle, has returned to the status of visitor. We are profoundly influenced by. and in awe of, this land, its spirits. and its cultures. But we are beginning to understand. as we get to know it better. that we cannot "own" it. in the sense that our pioneer forebears believed we could and should. It is no longer Court land that we depict, but simply Ether land, land which has and will have no owner. and consequently no pioneer. We are not without pride in our status- whether as Natives or explorers. But our pride is in being a part of such a place, not in the prospect of pioneering it, conquering it. taming it. The focus, it seems to me, is changing from Sydney Laurence's image, which put the emphasis on Alaskans as pioneers, to a newly rediscovered image of Alaskans as visitors - in a place of wonder.

Ron Manook's Then Came Human (1995)

Acknowledgments: Arctic Circle would like to express appreciation for the substantial assistance given by Kes Woodward and other members of the University of Alaska Department of Art for making available selections of their work in this lecture and exhibit. Thanks also to the University of Alaska Museum director, Aldona Jonatis, for allowing us to use extensive selections from their 1995 publication, A Sense of Wonder; to Wanda W. Chin, whose orginal publication design made our presentations that much more attractive; and to Barry McWayne, University of Alaska Museum photographer, who provided photographs of the artwork. Please note also that all text and images presented here are for personal and/or educational use only.