Category Archives: Arts

Laurence’s Alaska: The ‘invulnerable’ landscapes of the painter of the north

The paintings of Sydney Laurence depict an Alaska where nature is big, and people are small.

This article originally appeared in the June 15 issue of The Juneau Empire

Photo by Amy Condra, “Supper on the Mendenhall” by Sydney Laurence

by Amy Condra

A man carries a bundle of sticks to a fire built on the bank of a river, to a speck of yellow that barely stands out against a darkening streak of sky.

A lone log cabin is seen from a distance that reveals the depth of its solitude; it is surrounded by several Sitka spruce fading into a forest, one that deepens into mountains so vast they range out of view.

Finally, and most frequently, Mount McKinley rises from a swirling mist tinged with purple and blue, looming above the landscape, indifferent to the world below.

The paintings of Sydney Laurence depict an Alaska where nature is big, and people are small.

“That is a place where people are weak and insignificant, where landscapes are large and entirely invulnerable,” said Kesler Woodward, Professor of Art Emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and author of “Sydney Laurence, Painter of the North.”

Woodward notes that Laurence, who came here at the turn of the last century and became, by the 1920s, a well-known artist in Anchorage and throughout the region, was the first professionally trained painter to make Alaska his longtime home.

Although his work is relatively unknown outside of the Pacific Northwest, the scenes Laurence created can be hard to miss in Alaska; his paintings, and reproductions of those works can be found in museums, in the lobbies of banks and hospitals, and in galleries, gift shops and drugstores throughout the region.

“Because he was such a skilled painter and brought his training and skills to landscapes, his vision dominated not only that of other artists, but of almost everyone who saw his work,” said Woodward, who spoke about Laurence at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum last Wednesday,

Addison Field, Curator of Collections and Exhibits at the city museum, agrees that Laurence’s influence has extended far beyond the realm of art, shaping our perceptions of the Alaska landscape.

“His views documented our history; they became Alaska to us,” Field said.

Challenging Laurence’s vision

Woodward believes that certain themes found in Laurence’s work might be worth a second look.

“The idea of the land being so much more powerful than people, of people not having any effect on the land, can be dangerous,” he said. “We have learned that people can very much affect the landscape.”

Laurence’s model is a stalwart standby for many regional artists, who emulate his romantic images of Alaska as an untamed frontier.

“After Laurence, all of us who make images of Alaska landscapes have to make a choice — either to follow his model, or find models of our own,” Woodward said. “But I and many other contemporary artists are trying to look for other directions. There are as many different attitudes toward the land as there are people painting it. In my own work, I don’t see this as a place to be conquered, or tamed, or in conflict with — I see it as a place we are privileged to live in, a place where we will always be visitors.”

Christine Crooks, a member of the local artists’ group Plein Rein Painters, acknowledged Laurence’s lingering sway over how Alaska is portrayed, and his “in-depth impact” on our perceptions of Alaska.

“These days, we may see all the shows out there about Alaska and think, ‘Oh, no, not another dogsled!’” Crooks said. “In Laurence’s day, there just wasn’t the level of examination of Alaska that there is now. He made the rest of the world aware of Alaska’s beauty, its grandeur.”

Continue reading Laurence’s Alaska: The ‘invulnerable’ landscapes of the painter of the north

Alaska band stokes Appalachian tradition

Think hard-driving rhythms, fast-paced improvisations, and high-pitched vocals that wind up and down the melody like an inquisitive strand of kudzu.

Photo courtesy of the Great Alaska Bluegrass Band, The Great Alaska Bluegrass Band, with Brooke Munro, left, Scott Burton, Andrew Heist and Jeremy “Junior” Kane, celebrated the release of their new album, Semi-Bluegrass, at The Alaskan Bar in Juneau.

This article first appeared in The Juneau Empire on May 26, 2011


by Amy Condra

There is something brave about bluegrass, about the honesty of a group of musicians who stand up on a stage, before a crowd, with nothing but their instruments and a story to tell.

And when it’s done right, a good bluegrass tune will make your pulse quicken and your blood rise up; it’ll be like a ride down a wild, rushing, twisting river.

What makes bluegrass different from, say, a standard country song?

Think hard-driving rhythms, fast-paced improvisations, and high-pitched vocals that wind up and down the melody like an inquisitive strand of kudzu.

“People ask me, does it have to be so fast? Well it does for us to get the point across that we’re bluegrass music,” said Jeremy “Junior” Kane, vocalist and banjo-player for The Great Alaska Bluegrass Band (TGABB). “Without the high tenor, the mandolin, the banjo, then it’s bluegrass style… but it’s not bluegrass.”

And traditional bluegrass, the way it was played back when it began, is what TGABB wants to epitomize, says Kane.

Continue reading Alaska band stokes Appalachian tradition

New York theater artist to perform twice in Juneau

Newsweek has called Arcade “a wonder to behold;” The Sydney Morning Herald declared “what raises Arcade to the level of greatness is her insight into the collapsing soul of America.”

This article appeared in the July 14 issue of The Juneau Empire

Photo by Bobby Miller Performance artist Penny Arcade will be presenting her one-woman show, “The Girl Who Knew too Much,” at the Perseverance Theatre Friday evening and at The Rendezvous Saturday.

by Amy Condra

A few weeks ago, Perseverance Theatre’s Artistic Director Art Rotch found out that playwright and performance artist Penny Arcade was coming to Alaska for a visit.

“I was amazed she was going to be in Juneau!” said Rotch. “She usually plays in Sydney, London or New York.”

“Penny, and her genre of work, of drawing on material and creating a show in the moment, is pretty unique,” he added. “She was one of the creators of this type of work.”

Rotch isn’t alone in praising Arcade; when recounting his 10 most influential art experiences to Rolling Stone magazine, singer Jeff Buckley included Penny Arcade in the list.

Newsweek has called Arcade “a wonder to behold;” The Sydney Morning Herald declared “what raises Arcade to the level of greatness is her insight into the collapsing soul of America.”

She was even portrayed by “Sex and the City”’s Cynthia Nixon in a 2009 BBC film, “An Englishman in New York.”

And yet, chances are you’ve never heard of her.

“I don’t get a lot of mainstream press in America, but that makes sense,” said Arcade. “I talk about real stuff.”

Continue reading New York theater artist to perform twice in Juneau

Reincarnation of Stories: New play, to be performed in Tlingit

“In theater, people often want to make things more mainstream, to ‘aw, shucks,’ it up; we want to keep it authentic.”

This article first appeared in The Juneau Empire on April 14, 2011

Photo by Amy Condra, From left, playwright Ishmael Hope, director Flordelino Lagundino and composer Edward Littlefield have collaborated on The Reincarnation of Stories, which tells the story of the origin of the killer whale. “I want the play performed as an elder, a native storyteller, would perform it,” said Lagundino, “so that the audience can actually see a storyteller tell a story in Tlingit.”

by Amy Condra

When Ishmael Hope’s grandfather died, his family and friends gathered to pay tribute.

As they stood to share their stories, they spoke in a language that had, for thousands of years, served Alaska’s Native people: They spoke in Tlingit.

“My dad said, ‘Man, when an Elder gets up, and speaks from the heart, that is like soul food,’” said Hope.

When his own father, Andy Hope III, passed away in 2008, Ishmael Hope decided it was time to study Tlingit himself.

According to Sealaska Heritage Institute figures from 2007, Tlingit is spoken fluently in America by only 200 to 400 people, and is considered by many to be an endangered language.

For Hope, learning to speak it is a way to respect those who came before him.

“It truly does empower you to learn the language of your ancestors,” said Hope, who grew up speaking only English. “When you first learn a language, you think it’s just another way to say something. Then you realize that the way you put together thoughts and concepts is related to the language you are using.”

“Language is alive,” he added. “It’s an actual living thing.”

Hope’s previous plays include “Raven Odyssey,” “Cedar House” and “Gunakadeit,” which was performed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum for the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

His newest work, “The Reincarnation of Stories,” opens tonight, and features four actors — Frank Katasse, Edward Littlefield, Erin Tripp and Hope himself — who will perform the story of Naatsilanei, the birth of the killer whale.

They tell the tale in Tlingit, as it was once told by traditional Tlingit artist Willie Marks. While everyone in the cast was raised speaking English, they have also each studied Tlingit.

“It takes a long time to memorize Tlingit,” Hope said. “It can be like pushing a rock up a hill! But everyone in the cast has Tlingit lines.”

Continue reading Reincarnation of Stories: New play, to be performed in Tlingit

‘Writing Eden:’ Lecture to feature poet Emily Wall

This article first appeared in the March 10, 2011 issue of The Juneau Empire

Courtesy of Emily Wall, University of Alaska Southeast Writing Professor Emily Wall read her poetry at the university’s Wildlife Wednesday series

by Amy Condra

Alaska attracts adventurers, people who come for the tall mountains and the deep rivers, who envision themselves discovering something new even as they lose themselves in an ancient wilderness.

Among these dreamers from down south are the artists who want to capture the less tangible aspects of the quest: An image, a rhythm, a phrase, that will evoke what it means to be here.

But for writers, describing a place so larger-than-the-usual-life can be hard to do; too often, the words and phrases used to convey Alaska’s vastness can dwindle into small stereotypes.

“I grew up in inner-city Portland,” said local poet Emily Wall. “It’s almost easier to write about nature in tiny restricted places. Here, oh my God, where do you start? It’s so large!

Wall, an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Alaska Southeast, will be reading her poems at next week’s Wildlife Wednesday, a lecture series sponsored by the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, a nonprofit organization committed to the conservation, protection and promotion of our state’s wildlife.

Her presentation is titled “Writing Eden: Looking for Home in the Natural World.” Wall will be reading poems from her previously published book, “Freshly Rooted,” as well as works from a new collection.

Many of the poems in “Freshly Rooted” explore Wall’s experience both as a new wife and a new Alaskan, and were written after she and her husband decided, almost on a lark, to come to Juneau.

They moved here five days after they got married; they planned to stay for a year or so.

But then they fell in love with the place, said Wall, and ended up settling in.

Wall believes many of us are searching for the archetype of Eden, for an unspoiled frontier.

“People will sell everything, will buy a boat and go, looking for that perfect cove where there will be no one but orcas, where they can be alone and content,” Wall said. “That can be very hard to do, to find that — but it’s amazing how many people have that dream.”

Wall’s poems, which often focus on our place in the natural world, recast our perceptions of daily life in Juneau by enticing us with a new take on what many of us see every day.

In her poem “Composition Ravens,” Wall writes, “Three black knives/cleave morning air./Snow has softened the sound/but even driving/beside them, we hear the slicing of wings./One has a bright orange/peel, the other two stroke,/young swimmers, toward/the concrete wall, kick/off at exactly/the right moment,/toward the highway,/guardrail left/quivering and greasy/in their wake.”

Tina Brown, president of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance and coordinator of Wildlife Wednesdays, said she is looking forward to Wall’s reading.

“I have always admired her work,” Brown said. “It’s so good that we want to share it with our community.”

Like Wall, Brown was initially drawn to Juneau because of the town’s proximity to the Alaska wilderness.

“My husband and I would come to Denali to backpack every summer,” said Brown, who moved here from Georgia about five years ago. “One time we came to Juneau for a night, on our way to Denali—it was raining sideways and was 53 degrees, and I said, ‘This is great!’”

Brown believes the character of Juneau’s people enhances its appeal.

“There is no pretense here,” she said. “You can’t tell a person’s occupation or level of education by his or her way of dress, for example — all you have to do here is be yourself.”

Developing a sense of self in relation to a natural landscape is a theme Wall has thought about while editing her work for her new book, “Liveaboard.”

“’Liveaboard’ can be used as a verb and a noun,” said Wall, who lived on a boat with her husband for four years. “It can also be a metaphor for how we live in the natural world, for communities, for issues of faith.”

As liveaboards, Wall and her husband would cruise for 2,000 miles up and down the coast, using a dock in Vancouver as their home base.

The experience taught her that nature’s untamed wildness, its fierce lack of predictability, can actually foster community; sometimes the farther into the wilderness we venture, the more we need other people to help us survive it.

“It’s difficult to dock a boat on a river without help,” said Wall. “When we saw people come into the harbor, there was an immediate connection. You count on people to catch lines, to give accurate information on the weather, on what’s going on out there.”

The need to help, and the desire for support, creates an intimacy that isn’t so common in the Lower 48, says Wall.

“You seldom need your neighbors in suburban America, when you’re just bringing in a bag of groceries,” she said. “Community is the way we live together, and don’t live together.”