Author Archives: realartisbetter

About realartisbetter

Real Art Is Better! Real Artist living and working in Anchorage and McCarthy, Alaska, making Real Art - colorful oil paintings and prints that brighten any space.

Susitna 100: Death of a Dream, or When Quitting is a Good Idea

Growing up in Alaska I always loved Hobo Jim’s iconic song I Did the Iditarod Trail.  I’m not a dog handler, so I always figured that mushing 1,049 miles to Nome was not in the cards for me.  In 2007 we flew to Nome to see the end of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and when I was there I met a guy who had skied the trail all the way to Nome, which took him about a month.  I bought him a beer and listened to his adventurous tale.  I thought he was a total badass, and told him he could sing Hobo Jim’s song without sounding like a poser.  A few years later I went to a lecture given by Roger Cowles about his ride to Nome on what he called a six pack bicycle, which is a mountain bike that had been modified to have three tires on the front and back, on three wheels that were welded together and had spokes that laced them all together.  His lecture was really inspirational to me and I felt like I would like to do something like that someday.  Then fat bikes came along, and I finally bit the bullet and got one in 2015, selling my fancy summer bike to help fund the purchase.  I told my wife about my plan to ride to Nome and she suggested I do it in an organized race with safety precautions, check points, and supply drops.  The race to Nome is called the ITI 1000 Iditarod Trail Invitational.  It starts in Knik and follows the Iditarod trail all the way to Nome.  It takes people about 30 days to complete and costs a small fortune.  You can’t just sign up for the ITI 1000,  you have to qualify by completing shorter races.  First you have to do two 100-mile winter endurance races, then you can sign up for the ITI 350, which ends in McGrath.  After that you can sign up for the bike race to Nome.  People also walk and ski this event. 

This year I entered the Susitna 100 with the intent of starting the process of qualifying for the ITI 1000.  I learned a lot about the race in advance: there would be tasty food all the way at the checkpoints, that a jar of peanut butter qualified for the 3000-calorie food requirement, and that 100 miles is a long way in the winter wilderness.  I started the race just fine.  Riding the first 22 miles to the first checkpoint at Point McKenzie was easy — I’d been riding a lot and 22 miles was about the length of my average long ride.  I should mention that it started snowing as the race began, and that there was already new snow on the trail from a previous snowfall.  The 12 miler trip up the swamp to Flathorn Lake was grueling and many people started to walk their bikes.  I arrived shaken and feeling a little sick to my stomach, but the spaghetti put me back into a pretty good feeling and I headed back out into the snowstorm.  The next 14 miles were worse, and I walked a good deal of the way, arriving at dark to mile 49 at the Five Star Tent checkpoint, which was just a tent.  After a nice rest and holding back my urges to puke, I stumbled out back onto the trail.  I was able to ride at a nice 5 mph pace, and in four more hours I arrived to Eagle Quest Lodge at mile 63.  I was feeling the BONK at this point.  I had fallen off the bike a few times from sheer fatigue.  When I arrived it was still snowing, and dark around 10pm.  I felt terrible — my knees were feeling pretty used up, and my legs were rubber.  I ate a delicious bacon and egg sandwich for dinner, which helped my stomach feel a bit better, before resting inside a heated cabin for a few hours.  I made several trips to the outhouse with an upset stomach, and kept my sandwich down, but I was feeling pretty weak.  It kept snowing and I could hardly walk after resting for a few hours.  At 2am I was thinking, “Do I want to do this for 30 days straight if I bike to Nome?”  That’s when it occurred to me that I surely didn’t. 

There were 37 miles remaining in the race and the weather report was for a ton more snow (approximately 12-18 inches).   I looked at my bike and saw that it was buried in new snow.  Fat bikes are good for winter biking, but when it’s snowing that much snowshoes and skis are really a better option (or a dog sled), as pushing a fully loaded bike through new snow is hard work at any distance.  I knew that when I was pushing my bike I was hitting 2 mph.  At that pace it would take me about 20 hours to complete the race.  It was right then that I decided to scratch the race.  My stomach was protesting, my knees and legs were done, and I didn’t even want to ride to Nome any more.  I called Maria, and she drove to get me on Sunday morning.  I officially scratched, my dream of riding to Nome was dead.  I later learned that 59 other racers also scratched, and only 39 hardy souls finished the race. 

I’m glad I learned this lesson so early in this endeavor.  I spent a lot of money just for the 100 mile race.  I had to buy new boots, new bags for my bike, a bivy sack, a ton more gear, and the entry fee was cheap at only $250.  The longer races are much more expensive.  The ITI 150 is $750, and I don’t even know how much the ITI 350 costs, as it isn’t even listed on the website.  I figured when all was said and done I would have spent $25,000 riding to Nome.  That’s a lot of money to do something that no one has really heard about, but the bragging rights would have been nice.  The price isn’t even the biggest problem.  The biggest expense is the sheer pain and discomfort that the trip would entail, not to mention possible loss of fingers, toes and/or other medical problems that this type of behavior brings about. 

I won’t be able to sing Hobo Jim’s song with the same gusto ever again.  Yet, I am so thankful I learned this lesson this weekend.  I have way more respect for adventure sports athletes than I did before.  The people who finished are athletes of a different caliber than this city-boy-artist.  I will never never never plan to ride more than 37 miles in winter, and I’ll skip the blizzards, thank you very much.  The death of a dream is a good thing when completing the goal is a bad idea.  Sometimes you gotta know when to quit and I am so glad I didn’t waste any more time with an idea that was poison.  Had the conditions been great and I finished the race easily, I may have made worse decisions that could have ended badly.  And hey, for $25,000, I could buy a snow-machine and ride it to Nome, or at least have a pretty good time doing something really fun instead!  I won’t quit fat biking, because I love doing that, but seriously, endurance racing is out!  Much respect to the finishers — may your recovery go smoothly!


Would You Drink Whatever Lives in the Air in Anchorage?

Have you ever wondered how a spontaneously-fermented beer is produced?  Well, they don’t just put the wort (unfermented beer) into a regular fermenter and wait for something to happen.  It’s a bit more complicated than that.  There are biological critters in the air — bacteria and yeast.  These microbes are safe to humans and necessary to life as we know it.  I have been studying beer extensively for over a decade now and part of that study has been brewing beer at home.  I wouldn’t call myself a zymologist, as I tend to leave the scientific method out of my practices.  I’m more of a beer artist when it comes to the brews I make at home, focusing more on the process and outcome than knowing exactly which variables cause the results.  I like to think about monks brewing in a monastery — it’s not like they had microscopes and pH strips hundreds of years ago.  An interesting piece of hardware that the brewers of old did have is a Koelschip, or Coolship, which sounds a lot more high-tech than it actually is.  A Coolship is simply a flat open fermenter that resembles an enormous baking pan, or a small swimming pool.  The hot wort is pumped into this open fermentation vessel and allowed to cool overnight and naturally become inoculated with wild yeast and bacteria that live in the air.  It is then subsequently pumped into barrels, or a secondary fermentation vessel.  

I decided this would be fun to try at home on a very small scale — about 2 bottles.  What did I use for my Coolship?  Well, a baking pan, of course.  I have done this several times now with mixed results.  I make a small batch of wort with dry malt extract (DME), and add a hop pellet or two (I like to use Citra, one of my favorite hop varieties).  Then I set the Coolship next to an open window in my condo in downtown Anchorage, Alaska.  Spring and Fall seem to be better times of year for this when I have heard there is more yeast in the air, and the air temperature is neither too hot, nor too cold for the wort to start spontaneously fermenting.  I left the Coolship out for 4 nights and then poured the contents into a growler and capped it with an airlock (no need to make vinegar here, I was trying to make beer).  The results have been… very interesting. I definitely made a wild beer.  The original two bottles were nearly unpalatable (I heard it described as prison beer), but when I made a second generation of the stuff, it started to become a lot more palatable, and arguably delicious!  I think the yeast in my Coolship was strained and just needed to become a little more domesticated (and I also added more hops).  

Pouring the beer from the “Coolship” into my tiny fermenter.

Looks good enough to drink.

There is a fun relationship between hops and yeast.  The hops themselves don’t make the yeast start tasting good, it’s the collaborative efforts of the yeast working alongside the hops that make beer tasty.  Hops provide nutrition for the yeast.  So, I invite you to try this yourself, if you are getting bored of your current beer making procedures.  See what kind of flavors live in your part of the ‘hood.  I suggest you start your own yeast ranch.  All you need is a baking pan!  Cheers!

Paintings Commissioned during the Holidays

Every year during the holidays I get a surge of requests for commissioned paintings by customers who are very thoughtful gift givers.  Arguably, a custom oil painting is one of the most unique, personal, and thoughtful gifts one can receive.  My favorite part about working with people on commissions is hearing the stories behind each painting concept.  This year I didn’t get as many commissions as in previous years, because after the earthquake on November 30th people had other things on their minds like cleaning up trashed homes, broken glass, and fixing cracks.  Earth picked a bad time to shake us all up, and I think many retailers and artists felt the economic impact of decreased sales during that time.  Nevertheless, I completed seven paintings in time for Christmas, and they were all gratefully accepted by their recipients.  Now that they are no longer surprises, I can show them to you.  Click on each one to see it in more detail.  All paintings are framed in a natural wood frame, with hanging hardware installed.  The turnaround time is 2-3 weeks.  You can order a custom oil painting at my Etsy shop RealArtIsBetter, or by contacting me at info [at] realartisbetter [dot] com.

AK Beer Week 2019

My AK Beer Week oil painting on display at Midnight Sun Brewing Co. until Jan. 31st

While the rest of the world is clinging to New Year’s resolutions to eat healthy and exercise, Alaskans are gearing up for one of the most gluttonous weeks of the year known as AK Beer Week!  The week is packed with events dedicated to tasting and appreciating Alaskan craft beer, and is capped by the Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival.  Although AK Beer Week only lasts for 10 days, some people jokingly refer to January as AK Beer Month, and to promote craft beer culture in Anchorage all month long, I always have a beer-themed art show at one of my favorite venues, Midnight Sun Brewing Co.  My art will be on display, and available for sale until January 31st.  Here’s the list of AK Beer Week events that are currently on  More events are likely to be added, so check the list often.

Start training your livers now, hydrate often, and dress for the weather.  “Brave the cold. Revere the beer.”

2018 Accomplishments and One Big Goal for 2019

~ by Maria Benner

Keith Haring Beer Parody by Scott Clendaniel.

On the last day of the year, we always reflect on our accomplishments and struggles, close calls, notable events, and lessons learned.  We also set one big goal, because one goal sounds much more doable than many little ones.

So, our top three accomplishments and notable events for 2018 were (drumroll please):

  1. Trip to Lake Baikal, Kamchatka Peninsula, and Germany.
  2. Publishing our first book How to Draw Alaska Baby Animals: 49 Lessons from the 49th State
  3. Our second 1% for Arts project at Gladys Wood Elementary School in Anchorage, Alaska.

For 2019 our one big goal is to pivot from beer-centric art to outdoor sports themed art such as alpine skiing and fat biking.  Although the beer niche is very fun and profitable, and Scott will continue making beer paintings, he also wants to focus on outdoor scenery that promotes a healthy life style and a sense of adventure.

A couple smaller goals are to publish a second book (this one will be a beer-themed coloring book for adults), and to apply for international artist residency programs.

A non-work goal is to build a sauna on our property in McCarthy!

Cheers to 2019!

Last Minute Gifts from Real Art Is Better

~ by Maria Benner

If you still haven’t finished (or started) your holiday shopping, join the club!  But don’t worry, it’s not too late to order unique gifts in time for Christmas!  If you place your order by December 19th, USPS will deliver before the 25th.  So, go ahead and finish your holiday shopping right now at our Etsy shop RealArtIsBetter.

We also have gift certificates that we can either mail to you, or e-mail digitally so you can print one out at home and put it in a card.  That’s an option for the ultimate procrastinators.

This Saturday we’ll have a craft fair booth at Anchorage Brewing Company from 2pm – 8pm.  You can pick up last-minute gifts there too.

What’s Shakin’ (Pun Intended) at Real Art Is Better

You may have heard that we had a big earthquake here in Anchorage last Friday, but it didn’t break us down, and after two hours of cleaning, our studio is back to working condition.  Just don’t look up at the ceiling!  Our property manager will get around to replacing those ceiling tiles eventually, right?  Oh, and Maria has to buy a new laptop.  But it was 4.5 years old already, so we’re not too bummed about it.  Here are some “before and after” photos.

We’re still going to host our annual Holiday Studio Sale on First Friday this week.  We hope you’ll stop by to shop for signed holiday cards, limited-edition prints, oil paintings, and more.  You can even commission a custom oil painting!  If you spend $20+, you’ll get a FREE 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall poster, and we’ll have a drawing to win a free Clendaniel art print of your choice.  We will have a spread of tasty snacks, and complimentary beverages.  Inside the 4th Avenue Marketplace in Suite 4 (333 W 4th Avenue).  December 7th, 5:00pm – 7:30pm.

What kind of gifts can you find at Real Art Is Better?

Custom Oil Paintings

We all have at least one person on our gift list who has everything, or deserves a really special gift.  This is where I come in.  You’ll thank me for this idea later, trust me.  Think of that person’s most special place, or something they really love, like their pet, or their favorite beer/wine, or food.  Maybe you even have a great picture of them doing something remarkable.  Now you’re ready to commission an oil painting from me for that person in time for the holidays.  The deadline to order a custom painting is December 4 if it will be shipped, or December 10 if you’re picking it up at our studio.  If you’ve never commissioned a painting, I can assure you that I make the process very easy for you.  You can read the FAQ about the process on our blog.

Commissioned oil painting. 36″x18″, oil on panel.

How to Draw Alaska Baby Animals: 49 Drawing Lessons from the 49th State

Our first book is available for sale on Amazon.  Drawing is not just for kids!

Original Oil Paintings

Check out the extensive collection of original oil paintings at our Etsy shop.  You can search within our shop for specific beers, or subject matter.  If you don’t find what you’re looking for, you can order a custom oil painting.

Large oil painting for big empty wall Scott Clendaniel Susitna Poppies

Susitna Pops. 5ftx2.5ft, oil on panel. By Scott Clendaniel.

Signed, Limited-Edition Prints and Art Cards

Each print is numbered, signed, and packaged with backer-board in a plastic bag.  Signed art cards are available for holiday cards, or thank you cards.

Limited-edition prints by Scott Clendaniel

You can purchase gifts at our Etsy shop RealArtIsBetter, or at the studio.  If you can’t make it to the Holiday Studio Sale, contact us to schedule a time to stop by the studio.