Saturday, January 7, 2017

Recap: Eagle Residency

    Here's a follow-up to the previously mentioned (link to more information here) Bureau of Land Management Eastern Interior Artist-in-Residency program I completed back in August. It's an abbreviated post as there's a full 45-minute presentation of assorted photographs, sketches and drawings plus supplemental maps and a portfolio/sketchbook show + tell that accompanies the images. Since I'm obligated by the terms of the residency to have a public component this is a sampling for social media excerpted from that main presentation. I already got to give a test-run to the Fairbanks Watercolor Society as a special guest artist at one of their meetings, and will do so again presumably for the grand unveiling of the poster design I'm working on, which will probably happen at the Alaska Public Lands Information Center at a later date TBA.

    After a hectic and overloaded summer, what with teaching classes at both Visual Art Academy and Summer Sessions, hosting openings and putting on a major exhibition, plus back working a stint with the National Park Service ...oh and on top of it all, moving, this was a sorely needed respite from an insane schedule. So after panic packing and second-guessing supplies I jumped aboard a pickup with my official host for the 400-mile 10-hour road trip to my new digs for the last two weeks of August.
(more below the fold)

    Of the 270 million acres that the Department of the Interior manages through BLM, 87 million are in the state of Alaska - and of those lands 80% are under the stewardship of the Fairbanks District office alone. This includes the Fortymile Wild & Scenic River Corridor, and also Fort Egbert National Historic Landmark. There are some really sweet campsites (such as the West Fork) along the 160 mile seasonal road (60 miles paved to Chicken and 100 miles of gravel from there on to Eagle), along with stunning views (especially from American Summit a 3.4k high pass) that I kept making us pull over for frequent stops and nose-prints on the windows from all the rubbernecking at the jaw-dropping vistas. Aside from a trio of gamboling kit foxes on the road we didn't see any wildlife - presumably many species hightail it away during hunting season.

    In the presentation I include some sample scans directly from my sketchbook that bear witness to the amount of ideas that were inspired by everything from the panoramas and ongoing history lessons on mining and cultural aspects of the area. Much of that was on account of being uncoupled from the usual routine, and also untethered: no phone, no internet, just old-school firsthand observation and interaction.

    Me being fairly gregarious and outgoing, as opposed to the stereotype of a reclusive artist, I didn't spend much time holed up. Plus the community was so welcoming it was easy to start feeling right at home. Day one I debuted at the Alaska version of National Public Lands Day: BLM and the Eagle Historical Society along with the National Park Service (since the headquarters for Yukon - Charlie Rivers National Preserve is located in Eagle) hosted a free picnic which I had a table at to sit and do some demos and introduce myself to folks. Given some recent unfortunate events the feds have been in a PR nightmare, so it was extra nice to capitalize on one of the many, many positive things the agencies do.

    I was unexpectedly invited to do an impromptu show & tell the very next day just down the road at the relocated Village of Eagle, a small community that was rebuilt following 100% loss of all structures after the flood of 2009. About a dozen people of all ages gathered around as I walked them through the process and showed samples from my traveling portfolio... we had some great laughs! Later on during the residency I gave talks at both the Eagle Public Library and also spent a day at their cool school giving dual presentations to first the younger kids and then the older ones (total of nineteen students). We worked off a dry-erase board on an easel set up on a ping-pong table and drew variations of their school mascot (a lynx) and another character we called "Egbert the Eaglet." Bonus: In between I feasted on a school lunch with chocolate milk + Tater Tots which brought back all sorts of memories.

    Another highlight of my residency was being treated to a four-hour long walking tour of Fort Egbert - a designated National Historic Landmark - hosted by John Borg, retired postmaster and member of the Eagle Historical Society. We strolled around the grounds and explored many structure which contained an amazing amount of artifacts and antiques, all narrated by an incredible font of encyclopedic knowledge. I returned several times to sketch out a quartermaster storehouse, a mule barn, a water wagon shed and non-commissioned officers quarters. Later on back my base of operations I would work up the penciled pages with pen + ink.

    After a few days my host had left and I was marooned alone with a pile of mostly hunting/fishing/outdoor mags to read, and a huge hardcover scientific tome of a Field Guide to Alaskan Grasses. Hence the rather obscure botany gag.  Though I did get to use the phrase "hairy callus" for the first time.

    My temporary Fortress of Solitude was the BLM field station bunkhouse with a kitchen and the relative luxury of a first-class outhouse built to exacting governmental standards: life was good. The temperatures started to dip into the mid-thirties in the mornings, and I was treated to watching a daily progression of fall colors unfold around the area. The digs were situated next to airstrip from which I could often hear the sounds of roosting Sandhill cranes and migrating flocks of Canadian geese. From the woods occasional calls from owls could be heard. Of particular note was how everywhere around the place the forest floor was blanketed with enormous rotting orange mushrooms (King boletes).

     Days “off” were spent incubating ideas (sometimes confused with napping), punctuated by two-mile trips to town after pumping up the bike tires and tightening back down any loose connections (made for quite the humorous scene while attempting to steer while simultaneously holding down squirrely handlebars). Most mornings I'd have a tasty breakfast and/or lunch at the spiffy Hotel/CafĂ©/General Store, where I could eavesdrop on conversations for ideas sit with visitors over giant urns of coffee. Not kidding either as when you ordered a cup of coffee they would deposit a huge thermos at your table (good thing the town is damp as who knows how you'd get served beer at a bar - personal pony kegs?). Having work-in-progress and showing sketchbooks always makes for an easy icebreaker. I would plot out a schedule of events and pick the brains of people on things to do and places to check out, and enjoy some relaxing time out on the deck overlooking the Yukon river listening to proverbial sourdoughs reminisce or relate about experiences to a chorus of “Ayups.” sourdoughs. So my notebook quickly became filled with anecdotes and adventures, like sister-in-laws nailing fourteen caribou while traveling @ 95mph.

    About that river: it's one of the defining characteristics of the place, as it's a travel corridor - a transportation artery - for the region. It's a constant presence: hand in glove with the first thing I noticed when pulling into town was A) the silence so physically tangible, so thick it felt like it was pressing in on my eardrums and B) the near-silent sluicing of the river water... 2.4 tons of sediment per second (which during winter runs clear when the glacier runoff trickles to an end).

    It reminded me very much of my time spent in Georgia, of all places. There's a habit I picked up from a friend in Savannah who had a trick of ordering an extra sausage patty so as to chop up and add to his morning biscuits + gravy, which I reenacted at the diner. And more seriously, there is a lot of shared similarities between the two disparate locations when it comes to river culture - it's as much, if not more, an inextricably interwoven part of the people as it is of the place. When I lived for a couple years on the banks of the Ogeechee river I became sensitized to the subtle rhythms and many moods of the water. Seeing as how, due to logistics, I had no opportunity this trip to actually get on the Yukon in a boat, it'll be at the top of the list when I return for another visit.
And of course no mention of the river would be complete without noting the impact of the 2009 flood (a great firsthand account written up here, and some footage here): the National Park Service's visitor center has a full unedited version of some insane documentary footage from the cataclysmic event, shot right from the shore by a ranger.

    One particular place that yielded much in the way of education and insight was the James Wickersham courthouse, which I returned to a couple of times on my own after the formal tour. The judge has a fascinating history which I was more familiar with on account of his indelible association with Fairbanks (and Denali). His bench and robe are on display, along with my newest obsession, a heavy, hand-blown glass inkwell for his dip-pen. Naturally now I must have one in my own studio. A gavel might come in handy too.

    I also learned about another unique individual who left a mark on the backstory of the area: Erwin A. “Nimrod” Robertson, whose infamous dentures were in one of the museum cases, along with an "impressively accurate 60”x 80” relief map of the Eagle area, which he constructed from newspaper, magazines, hematite and moose blood." There's a couple of great reads posted on the internet about his life in much more detail here and here. Reminded me a lot of the Sourdough Cartoonist character I doodled out when first getting news of the residency.

    Met a lot of really nice folks (still living), and the community was friendly and welcoming. I got to visit with a few that we shared mutual friends from Fairbanks and a couple expat residents. Mary Morris and Yukon Ron opened up their shop and studio (they're also on Etsy and Facebook) which was a real treat to see. Livin' the dream...

    Accompanying us on the first portion of the trip was 2015 recipient of the BLM residency, watercolorist Deb Horner, who was wonderful bonus company and artistic inspiration with her energy and skill. Our collaboration above (cute at the time but looks more like a juvenile vandalism now) was done while visiting the village community center.

    Also had some great conversations and shared stories over several evening campfires with a neighbor working for the Park Service for the season, Cindy Mom, who lives over in Seldovia and writes about her experiences and perspectives at 45to60.

    An important part of the portfolio I use for the traveling show & tells is pairing up original pieces with the source material, so as to illustrate the process. That usually means the concept sketch or doodle in a sketchbook, and another little thing I do that flies under the radar is loosely basing backgrounds on reference drawings done, many times while looking out the window of a vehicle (not while driving, though I've been known to pull over quite a bit). One good example is the sequence posted above where one can see the germ of an idea taking place on one page that incorporates some simple sketches done of the same area - in this case it was during a road trip up the Dalton Highway done earlier in the season.

    Eagle Bluff is a very distinctive landmark of the area, and the hotel/diner was situated right along the river by its base. From my morning "work station" I had a fantastic, sweeping view up and down the river as it swept down to the Ogilvie Mountains eight miles away from the Yukon Territory. Above is posted two scans from one of my field sketchbooks from the same spot, looking upriver to the left and downriver to the right. They were first penciled out and then inked in later, then a wash was applied back on-site. These studies formed the basis of a background which, as I mentioned, not too many folks are aware of being based on a real place.

    Here is a finished panel as appearing in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, which actually finds it's way down to that neck of the woods eventually, and so afterwards the kids at the school could see the completed print version, which was one of the demonstration pieces I did during my visit. I thought it might be kinda neat to not only be privy to the entire process but to also be in the know about a little detail. Also once again displaying the insidious effect of overexposure to too many fishing magazines back at the bunkhouse, where every single angler assumes the identical pose with their catch.

    Since it began drizzling a fair amount towards my final days of the residency, and I had a couple scheduled visits around town where lugging the portfolio was a logistical issue, I was graciously loaned the use of an ATV which I could putter around with between gigs. One of the most popular places was the public library, which incidentally was the only place around with a public wifi connection, and so it was an essential location for re-connecting with the virtual, outside world. I like the intimacy of just sitting at a table with people and passing stuff around for my talks, as opposed to on a stage or even lecturing in a classroom - things like this particular evening are always such real treats to do.

    Best of all was getting some pictures emailed to me of the in-school display they did with some outstanding student work... even had a set of awesome thank-you cards show up in my mailbox - how cool is that?

    Eleven days total spent on this adventure, and after a touch-and-go “weather hold” on account of the overcast conditions, a mail cargo plane from Everts whisked me away back home. No airport, TSA, gate, shelter of any kind - just walk on over to the end of the airstrip and climb aboard. An accommodating pilot humored me with a last-minute flyover of the town, and we navigated under the low cloud cover, winding our way across the Charley River region with spots of blazing color dotting the tundra below as we crossed over the Chena River State Rec Area. I was especially excited to see the Middle Fork of the Chena and also seeing one of my long-loved places on the planet, the Granite Tors from the air for the first time ever. You can the briefest of an idea from the clip below, which is two really short segements, the first of which was shot from the shore overlooking the Yukon at the foot of Eagle Bluff, and the second is from the plane.

Couple hours later and I got my overdue hug from The Significant Otter, and right to work on drawing from the memories. My thanks to Collin Cogley and the folks in Eagle for the hospitality and generosity: a badly needed reboot plus a fantastic, inspiring opportunity to explore a beautiful new place.


  1. Love this Jamie Smith. I've friends in Eagle, and am so glad you got a chance to be there in this positive effort of the National Parks.

    1. Thanks Neal - appreciate the comment + thanks for giving me some leads on the visit beforehand. Public lands in Alaska (BLM in this specific case, though the State Parks, National Parks + Refuges etc. also all serve crucial roles) are special places that inspire everyone... including the cartoonists!