Maria and I are at the cabin in McCarthy today. It has been ten years since we started building this little log house. We woke up to rain and a bit of wind. I started a fire in the wood stove, since rain promises a colder day. It is 45F outside, but a nice toasty 67F inside the cabin. Should I put another log on the fire? I think not. 67F, is great but 75F is too warm. I’m supposed to be outside harvesting dry spruce branches to fuel the Burning Dude, which will burn tomorrow at 9pm on the bank of the mighty Kennicott River. I made a lazy breakfast burrito with all the fixings and then volunteered to do the dishes. The dishes are done, and it is still raining. I think I’ll have a pot of hot herbal tea, since the coffee is all gone and I don’t want anything with more caffeine at this point. I already did my yoga and there are no good reasons left not to go outside and get to work, but I am enjoying taking it slow today. I will go outside and harvest that brush when I am done writing this blog. Until then, I’m going to enjoy watching the birds splash in the puddles outside, and the trees wiggle in the wind. The hot tea is great, and I can see fall happening all around me with yellow leaves falling from Aspen tops, and fireweed going to seed. Yesterday we woke up to frost on the ground, then it started raining in the afternoon. I love how fall is a slower time of year — getting us all ready for the stillness of winter. I’m excited about tomorrow’s Burning Dude event, and I’ll talk about that in my next blog post. I wonder if anyone will come if it’s raining hard and windy. At least fire danger will be low, since it has rained a bunch in the last 24 hours. Okay I’m ready to go out now. I better put on my waterproof gear, since I can hear the rain humming on the metal roof.
My Aunt Barbara took a photo of a raven sitting on top of the Tok Thai Food establishment on her drive back from a visit to McCarthy, and I got her permission to make a painting based on her photo. According to a review on Yelp, Tok Thai Food has the best Panang Curry in Alaska. I’m going to get some on my way back from McCarthy next time. This roadside restaurant is an enigma, and I don’t know much about it. All I could find online were the menu and a bunch of positive reviews. The official website’s title page calls it Tok Tdai Food. I have always had a good meal there, but is it really “t’die” for? So, why is Tok Thai Food in Glennallen, and not in Tok? The questions keep on rolling. Why is the best food in Glennallen, Thai food? Why is the best Thai food in Alaska located in Glennallen? Who owns this place? Who is making this delicious food?
What I do know is that I love stopping at this crossroad on my way back from McCarthy, and taking a minute, or 20 to get out of the truck, get some gas, and have fresh food. Making a stir fry from old cabbage, a spotty squash, and some canned chicken at the cabin in McCarthy may fill my belly, but it is far from what you get at Tok Thai Food. I think it’s the location that makes it so special. Strategically located at the T, where the Glenn Highway meets the Richardson. If you are going to Chitina to dipnet, or want to go to Valdez, you drive right past it. If you want to go to Tok, Whitehorse, Haines or Seattle, you will also drive right past it. It is four hours from Anchorage, and four hours from the Canadian border, perfectly located for lunch.
I painted this iconic sign because it represents returning to civilization. After a month in the Wrangell Mountains, a hot meal is welcome. The Radio Shack sign in Glennallen advertising hot pizza is alluring, but they don’t actually have hot pizza, or at least not when I have been there. The Freeze has long since closed its doors. The IGA may have some sandwiches and deli snacks, but it is far from excellent. The raven in this painting symbolizes wilderness to me, and the bright yellow manufactured plastic sign, humanity. After washing hands in the gas station, and getting a crispy fried egg-roll, it feels good to know, that yes, they do sell auto parts within the Glennallen city limits. This painting is about the balance of going to the wilderness to reduce stress by leaving the trappings of the city behind, while in the wilderness there is a different kind of stress of knowing you only have what you brought with you. It is good to change it up, find the ataraxia (Greek for balance), remind yourself what is important in your life, and you will find your inner peace.
The original oil painting on canvas will be on display, and available for sale at my art show at Dos Manos Gallery in June and July. The art opening reception will take place on First Friday, June 3, 5-8pm. I will also have some prints available.
Every year Arctic Valley Ski Area has a fundraiser auction, and this year I bid on a pair of custom skis from Go Custom Skis in Seattle, Washington. I couldn’t believe I was the winner at $75 below retail value! Tristan runs GC Skis, and we started communicating about my new set of boards right away! I wanted a pair of skis that looked like the ones I painted in an image called Ski AK that I have been selling since 2013. The graphic is a nod to the Alaskan flag and says “Alaska”. When I was designing my new skis I put the same graphics on the front, and created a new one for the back of the skis, which was not visible in the painting. I put my Arctic Valley trail map painting inside the text spelling out “Alaska”. The skis got made and hand-delivered by Tristan, who is also a jet pilot for Costco. He happened to fly a group of execs to Alaska and brought the skis, which saved me having to pay for shipping. I bought some nice Marker bindings, and had them mounted at SkiAK.
Yesterday was Santa Skis Free day at Alyeska Resort, and my first chance to try out my new “Alaska” skis. Santa Skis Free day is a blast! Nothing is funnier than seeing 750 Santas riding the lifts, rocking some turns, crashing, drinking beers, and occasionally gathering up scattered gear from an all-out Santa yard-sale. Everyone who dressed up like Santa head-to-toe, or Ms. Claus, an elf, or a reindeer got a free lift ticket!
My skis had just been hot-waxed, and were way more slippery than my old skis. It was also a classic Alyeska ski day with overcast skies, some flurries of snow, fog, and overall terrible visibility. Since I broke my hand up there last year, I hadn’t been back to ski at Alyeska. The new skis were handling way differently than I expected, and I nearly wiped out on Silvertip just after I got off the lift. This happened mostly because I couldn’t see anything. There is a significant drop-off where speed is needed to get up the other side. I didn’t biff it, but I didn’t look very smooth either. I pretty much splayed my legs out and avoided going down from the sheer strength of my groin (imagine me doing this in a Santa costume). Snow sprayed up all over me and I looked like an abominable snowman for the rest of the day. After the fifth run I was getting more comfortable with the short turn radius, and I could sit back and ride them a lot more proficiently. Maria and I made it to the Santa group photo, and skied a few more laps, stopping in the woods for a quick sandwich. We then made it down the mountain with no repercussions. I got many compliments in the lift line, and on the chairlift on my “Alaska” skis, and gave Tristan props each time.
After we took off our Santa suits we went over to Girdwood Brewing to nab a tasty brew! I got the GBC 500: a Brewing Odyssey, and Maria had the IP-AK. Last time I had a beer at GBC after a ski day at Alyeska I was icing a broken hand. Much better to be sitting there without a broken bone. We drove home with enough time to catch the end of my Russian lesson on Zoom, and then we helped a friend assemble a brand new dining room table he had built from a large slab of Elm and solid Walnut. It turned out to be a great day! Cheers to new skis, an amazing new table, and the genius who came up with Santa Skis Free Day at Alyeska Resort!
The first real snowfall of the year covers the grass and leaves, and provides winter light during the long, dark nights. Last night I was excited to see the tips of the stalks of grass obscured from view. The entire city illuminates from the reflective properties of the falling snow. This morning I was surprised to see eleven inches on our back porch. We went for a lovely 3-mile walk to the Helen L. McDowell Sanctuary, breaking trail the whole way! Upon our return, Maria and I spent a little over half an hour shoveling our driveway and walkways. There was about a foot of light and fluffy snow, so it wasn’t that hard. It’s still snowing as I write this, and all the clearing we did is now under another two inches.
I get really excited about the first day of snow, because I love winter! Skiing, fat-biking, ice skating and winter walks are all things I enjoy in winter. Don’t get me wrong, I also love summer. The hectic pace that ensues with all the daylight, the out-of-state visitors, and the insidious mosquitos that come along with the warmer weather make it a second best to me. Third, comes late fall when it is cold, dark, and there is usually freezing rain. Last, is early spring, when the meltdown makes everything ugly, and going outside is difficult due to half-frozen swampiness.
Winter is my favorite. There is a special quality to winter, especially in Alaska. I mentioned the light from the snow. I can easily navigate at night without a headlamp, if a blanket of snow is reflecting any bit of moon or starlight. My favorite thing about winter though, is semi-hibernating. Nobody expects you to answer your phone after 9pm, and if you say you can’t make it because the roads seem too dangerous, people completely understand. In the summer people want you to go to work for 10 hours, then expect you to climb a mountain. In the winter, if you spend 4 hours riding a chairlift, people might expect you to fall asleep while watching a movie afterwards.
Snow is great! It makes winter real! Let it snow! I will shovel the driveway again this evening, right before I climb into bed at 9:15pm.
I know that Burning Man is an established event that has been happening for decades, but I have never been. I basically don’t know anything about the event, except that it is a wickedly insane art festival where they burn a temple at the end, sometimes with a man at the top. A week-long avant-garde art event with 70,000 people all showing up to party and experience being human together in the middle of a hot, dusty desert.
Dave Hollis, my friend in McCarthy, is a retired computer programmer who I would consider to be the social guru for the Kennicott River Valley. This guy knows what is happening, where it is happening, and also plans some amazing events of his own. In McCarthy, around 2009 Dani Evans and B-Mac built a Burning Woman, and she asked Hollis to be a fire tender. Four years ago in 2018, Hollis and Brady, and some other McCarthy locals, decided to make a small version of Burning Man, which they called Burning Dude. It is a fragment of the Nevada festival, and can’t even be compared, but it is still a hoot, and a lot of fun. I missed the Burning Woman, and I also missed the first Dude, who was 12 feet tall, and I heard was awesome. In 2019 fire danger was high, so there was no Dude. The second Burning Dude in 2020 was designed by Seth, a local fire dancer, and I helped erect the dude with 10 other people, while Brady quickly nailed supports to keep it upright. It burned, but never fully caught on fire. The sculpture was 34 feet tall. The oversized head was dropped and ignited later, providing plenty of entertainment. I told the team that I have sculpture training and would like to help build next year’s Dude.
This fall, both Seth and Brady were not available to build the Dude. Hollis was bummed, but he asked me if I thought it could still happen without them. I gathered a small team: my wife Maria, my cousin Cameron, and of course Hollis. I designed the Dude on a sheet of paper, to be built from log mill slabs, which are fairly irregular, and have a lot of bark on them. I took an afternoon the day before to gather twigs from the bottom of spruce trees from my ten-acre lot, and loaded them onto my trailer. The next day, Maria and I drove down to McCarthy, picked up Cameron and we unloaded the brush on the bank of the Kennicott River. Then we drove over to Hollis’ house where we picked up about 200 spruce slabs. We chucked them down to the Kennicott river, and we started to build. I had packed a ton of tools, including my cordless drill, driver, chainsaw, a million screws and nails, as well as wire. First, I built a sturdy box, and then we built the feet and legs. We attached the torso, and put on the arms. Finally we built the head, and put a crown of sparklers on top of it. Hollis and Maria juggled the head up to Cameron, who was standing on the box. Cameron hoisted the head up to me, as I crouched inside the torso. I quick-like attached the head and then had to remove my chainsaw helmet to extract myself from the torso. Next, we stuffed the spruce branches all over the dude and filled the box, torso and head. I bought a gallon of vegetable oil and we stapled oily paper towels all over the Dude. We were building the Dude in a prominent location, right next to the foot bridge, where everyone saw us. Hollis did a great job telling people to show up at 9pm for Burning Dude.
We had three hours to spare before the scheduled ignition, so we went to Mark and Livvi’s new house for ice cream and hot dogs. At 9pm, a fairly large crowd had gathered around the Dude. All four of us ignited him at 9:11pm on 9/11! I knew the spruce boughs would work, and vegetable oil is essentially as combustable as diesel fuel. It ignited in three stages: first the box platform, then the torso, and finally the head. The head had this amazing glowing crown above it from the sparklers, and then it kept burning even after the branches all burned up. The paper towels were amazing. The head fell in after 11 minutes, but the Dude lasted about 44 more before Malcolm decided to kick the box over. I was so pleased with how well everything worked. I thank Maria, Cameron and especially Hollis for making this possible! Not as spectacular as Burning Man festival in Nevada, but Burn Dude was a success in 2021!
Lighting can change the appearance of paintings more than you might expect. Not just paintings, but any surface color can be shifted by changing light. I am reminded of a time I was picking colors for a sticker design and I chose a red-orange instead of the cherry-red the client wanted. The evening light through my old apartment drapes affected my choice. Little to say, I had to make a quick reorder of stickers for that client. When I moved into this new house, the room designated for the studio was painted garishly orange. I decided to take a week to repaint the whole room, about 420 square feet of space, because I wanted to have a neutral color experience.
I have two lamps that I have been using for photography that I started using to supplement light in the middle of the studio. I have about as many windows as the rental studio on 4th Ave had, but the room is bigger, and the windows are spread around both sides of the room, so it is nice to have a supplemental lamp in the center. The lamp has a toggle control that switches it from warm to cool light, and you can see how the painting shifts in color. I have added a video to this blog for you to see this effect. It makes you realize how important correct lighting is for displaying paintings, and is something that should be considered when creating and installing art.
Last year at the end of December I purchased a drone. This is my second one — Maria got me a “starter” drone for my birthday a year ago, which I didn’t crash, but caused to quit working due to a software malfunction that I could not fix. It was a cool present, but it didn’t have the camera I was looking for. I was glad to pick up a DJI Mavic Mini from Costco. It’s really easy to use, and small enough that you can easily put it into a backpack to take places. It connects to your smartphone, and uses a joystick control that I had already became familiar with on the first drone, and a previous toy helicopter I used to crash into the ceiling and floor a lot. The drone is great, because it allows me to take pretty high quality aerial photography and videos that I would never be able to get otherwise. Drones are like ATV’s — they are annoying to people who do not have them, but are incredibly useful. Everyone is imagining that they are being surveilled, with highly detailed photos captured of them, but you have to push the shutter button to take a picture, or to record a video. This particular drone does not have a zoom lens, so seeing who is in the photographs is actually difficult, unless I fly the drone up really, really close. I use it mostly to take pictures of people’s cabins in McCarthy (with their permission) and to get cool shots from angles impossible to get otherwise.
I had a great time at my friend Bob Cook’s cabin when he invited a group of people over on a hot day for a swimming party in his pond. The shots from the air turned out really neat, and I had a good time chasing kids around the pond.
The DJI Mavic Mini has a pretty short range — about 200 meters. I think it would be a lot cooler to get one that can go a bit farther. My next drone will definitely have a longer range, but for now I am having a blast getting aerial shots with the one I have. I took a bunch of pics of Arctic Valley Ski Area, which I am going to reference while creating a new trail map of the mountain.
I had always wanted to get into flying drones, and I love flying this one. I’m sure it is just one of many I will own in the future. A drone is a great tool for an artist to have in his/her quiver of image-gathering devices. Cheers to flying remotely! I hope you enjoy the pics and videos I made with my flying camera.
Recently I started painting on canvas again. Last year I had to build a giant painting (12ft x 6ft) for a clinic in Bethel, and decided it would be best to paint it on canvas, roll it up, then fly there to rebuild and re-stretch it. I was pleased with the results. The end product was quite different from the hardwood plywood panels, but I found it to be easier to put certain details into the painting. The finishing work required to put a painting on the wall — framing or painting the sides, has always been a hurdle for me, and I remember one of my college professors praising my paintings, but criticizing my shoddy frames. I often see paintings framed poorly, and I have striven since those early college failures to produce professional looking pieces. I still have some of those old canvases rolled up, but fortunately I did away with the garish frames. In my defense, I was framing them on the catwalk balcony at my dorm room, because the sculpture professor wouldn’t let me make frames in the state-of-the-art sculpture lab.
A finished canvas without a frame needs to have a full wrap so the edges may be painted. I didn’t make canvases that way until I was taught how to do so in class. Frames need to have a lip that covers the front edge of the painting so you don’t have a distracting gap. Previously, I used to laminate a piece of hardwood to the edges of a painting and sand the edge back to make a finished looking box, which is impossible with canvas. That also takes a ton of work, since I am without a wood-shop, just like in the old dorm-room days. Operating a table saw and a chop saw outside in the snow and 10 degrees is not my idea of fun. Nobody ever told me being an artist was going to be easy. In fact, I was told a successful artist works harder than most people. I don’t know how hard I actually work, but I do seem to always be out of time. I don’t really like power sanding, so I ordered a case of professional grade canvases. I’ll give them a try and maybe I can just paint the edges and skip that snowy outdoor time with the annoying power-tools.
Painting on a canvas is completely different than the techniques I have been using on the hardwood panels. My gold and red underpainting doesn’t work the same, so I have gone back to a traditional painting technique I haven’t used in a decade. I was always about getting the colors to scream on the surface, but I am now more interested in getting a more accurate depiction. I am now making an underpainting that represents the grayscale values, and not the primary colors I always used previously, which makes me like using canvas way more. Canvas paintings reproduce better as canvas prints, since it is the same material used to begin with. The gold and red painting surface that I have been using, looks great as an original, but always misses a bit as a reproduction. I am switching over for completely practical reasons. It seems very few people purchase original paintings. I sell 20, or more prints and then maybe one original. Even though my originals are pretty affordable, and I price my prints a bit higher than average.
Painting on canvas takes more time as I am forced to work with layering techniques. The alla-prima technique looks lackluster without the red and gold underpainting. It is necessary to build up layers to completely cover the canvas and fill in the little white spots that form around painted objects. This takes more time and requires mixing mediums. I will probably have to charge more for originals, since it takes way longer to make canvas paintings. I originally started painting on the red and gold panels because it worked so well in a Plein Air (outdoors painting) environment. I could start and finish a painting before it started to rain, or the sun moved too far, changing the shadows. I was also making smaller pieces. Are the red and gold panels to be retired forever? Of course not! I will still make some pieces using my signature technique, but I also have bought two large canvases and want to see where these traditional materials lead me.
Our studio is inside the 4th Avenue Market Place, which is right on 4th Avenue, about a block from the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. So, since 2016 we’ve been transforming the studio from work mode to pop-up gallery mode, and opening it to the public when everyone is on 4th Avenue to watch the race. Each year I paint a new dog-mushing oil painting, and it usually sells on the day of the race. A lot of people who come through the studio that day are tourists who came to Alaska just to see the Iditarod. This year I painted this piece of Martin Buser, and then featured it in an e-news to my subscribers, and it sold before the open studio event!
So Maria took a photo of the painting, and printed prints of it to sell during the Iditarod start at our studio. But she also displayed the original, with a “Sold” sticker on it, and she had the brilliant idea to write on the sticker that I accept commissions, and could paint a custom Iditarod painting similar to this one with “your favorite musher.” Well, several people took her up on that offer, and suddenly, I found myself painting dog teams for the next three weeks! We were supposed to go to Washington, Hawaii, and Australia, but those trips were cancelled due to COVID-19 hysteria, so I ended up having plenty of time to work on these paintings. I just finished them last week. Who’s your favorite musher?
Spring break in Alaska means skiing, building snowmen, and spending time inside, because up here winter lasts well into April. Most stores are on a national merchandising schedule, so while Costco is selling snorkel masks and swimsuits in March, we’re still looking for hand and toe warmers, and new ski jackets. Ever since we finished building our log cabin in McCarthy, we’ve been going there for Spring break whenever we can, because McCarthy in March is super beautiful and fun! So here are some photos from our rowdy spring break shenanigans, Alaska style. At the time we still didn’t know that spring break would be endless this year due to COVID-19.