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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.”

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