The Alaska House Art Gallery, a downtown Fairbanks destination for both artists and art lovers, is closing its doors after 56 years in business.
Owners Yolande Fejes and Ron Veliz made the announcement Tuesday on the gallery’s Facebook page, writing, “It is with great sadness that we announce our retirement. The COVID Virus has forced a difficult decision and the gallery is now permanently closed. ... It is the end of an era.”
Fejes’ mother, artist and author Claire Fejes, and father, Joe, founded the gallery at 1003 Cushman St. in 1964. The Tudor Revival-style home, built in 1937 when Cushman Street and 10th Avenue were considered “out of town,” was the home Yolande grew up in as well as the business that showcased works from artists across Alaska and nation.
“It’s been an absolute honor and a pleasure to have this privilege,” Yolande Fejes said. “It’s been a privilege to have such highly regarded artists here and to be respected in the community. It’s all about the people.”
Fejes started contacting artists who had works on display about two months ago to say that the gallery would be closing, she said, wanting the artists to know firsthand about the closure because it would impact them the most. The gallery was home to works of all mediums, from Claire’s paintings in The Claire Fejes Museum in the main gallery to carved ivory displays and masks, crafted iron sculptures, watercolors and oil paintings, handmade jewelry, sketches and illustrations, and other works that were the tangible result of an artisan’s mind.
Alaska House Art Gallery also played host to musicians, authors and people of note, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor when she visited Fairbanks in 2016. On First Fridays, when galleries and businesses open their doors to public receptions, the Ron Veliz Quartet would perform, often well into the night after the official reception ended.
“Alaska House was a magic space,” Veliz said. “A lot of people, when they’ve visited from all over the world, they’ve taken that with them. Every day when we walk in, it feels the same way — lucky to be here.”
But running an art gallery is hard work, and running a profitable one is even harder. That became noticeable in the days following 9/11, Fejes said, and now in the age of COVID-19 and with the pandemic’s impact on tourism in Alaska, it’s become even more so.
“We honestly have floated this gallery for a number of years,” Fejes said. “We would make just enough to crack the doors open to make it to tourist season. And don’t get us wrong, we’ve had a great run and business, but after 9/11 and even the tearing up of Cushman Street, that hurt. We’ve been doing it out of love.”
One of the most impactful experiences of owning the gallery was the interaction with and learning from the Alaska Native community, particular Elders who knew Claire Fejes and her work. Elders from Bush villages and rural communities, where Claire spent much of her time drawing and
sketching in the 1950s, would visit the gallery, have tea, and talk for hours upon hours, sharing traditional knowledge.
“It was an honor and stunningly informative,” Ron Veliz said.
The first artist to exhibit at The Alaska House Gallery when it opened was acclaimed painter and illustrator Rockwell Kent, who Claire reached out to regarding his writings. The gallery itself has been home to prints and paintings by Sara Tabbert, Gael Murakamib and Jesse Venable, among many others, as well as Earl Atchak’s carvings, Gilber Schaeffer’s masks, Penny Abraham’s dolls, and sculpture work by Bobby Nashookpuk. Claire’s work, which often depicted Inupiaq people, particularly women, has been exhibited worldwide, from Seattle and New York to Tokyo and Israel. Claire Fejes died in Carlsbad, California, in 1998.
“For us, it becomes a story,” Yolande said of the Alaska Native works the gallery has displayed. “It wasn’t just a whale bone carving but the story of the artist and how they lived and their history. That was part of our mission. I know we had a good hand in helping with collections that people will see forever. That’s part of our legacy and my mom’s paintings, too.”
Now, as Yolande and Ron finish clearing out the gallery and make contact with a few more artists, they’re reflecting on their life in Fairbanks and the impact the gallery had on the state. The couple plans to relocate to Southern California where they have family but return to Fairbanks in the summer, taking up the snowbird lifestyle.
“The nature of the artist is you have to create no matter what,” Yolande said. “It’s kind of, ‘If you make it, they will come.’ My mother would paint not knowing if anybody would come.”
As far as the future of art, and especially that of the art world during a pandemic, both Yolande and Ron had no clear idea of what tomorrow might bring for Alaska’s artists — but they remain hopeful.
“I don’t have a prediction but I have a sense it might tighten the community, band us together in a positive way,” she said. “I’ve always said art changes the world, and I believe that.”
Contact Features Editor Gary Black at 459-7504 or at twitter.com/FDNMfeatures.