FAIRBANKS — Alaska is 50 years old, relatively young as compared to, say Massachusetts or Delaware. But in a land of extremes — weather, lifestyles, growth — a lot can happen in 50 years.
“50/50,” on display at Pioneer Park’s Bear Gallery, is much more than another celebration of statehood; it’s a commentary on Alaska’s first half-century.
Fittingly, 50 contemporary Alaska artists offered their perspectives on the first 50 years of Alaska’s history using photography and a variety of other mediums.
The idea came from the Alaska Photographic Center in Anchorage, which worked in conjunction with the Alaska Humanities Forum and the Rasmuson Foundation as part of a statewide program called “The Alaska Statehood Experience.” The exhibit originally opened in Anchorage at the International Gallery last July and makes its second and final stop in Fairbanks on Nov. 6.
Artists used the photographic lens as a guide but created an array of perspectives from mediums such as oil and acrylic painting to mixed media and sculpture.
“The art form isn’t necessarily the main part of the exhibit,” said Melissa Hougland, executive director for the Fairbanks Arts Association. “It’s the commentary in each piece — not the media — that make it so thought-provoking.”
Five local Fairbanks artists were selected to offer their perspective on Alaska since statehood. These include Charles Mason, Douglas Yates, Kate Wool, Brian Schneider and Barry McWayne.
“Though it’s heavily influenced through photography, it doesn’t necessarily contain many photos. Photographs are used in a sense that they’re inclined to be a part of the exhibit,” Hougland said.
Reflecting on histories
Some of the pieces reflect life as a homesteader or pioneer, while others reflect on progress and watching cities expand. Some tackle environmental issues such as erosion or global warming, but the pieces tie the state together as it is today with what it was like in 1959.
“A lot of people have gone through the exhibit and seen things through the art that they haven’t necessarily pondered about the past 50 years,” Hougland said.
Local artist Douglas Yates used photographs from archives and personal collections to highlight early relationships between the first white settlers and the Native Alaskans who greeted them in his piece “Beyond Ice: People and the Land.”
“Looking backward, even a few years, has its advantages,” Yates said of his work. “In that rear-view mirror, Alaska’s past is often reflected in ice. It is photography, however, that tracks the more recent comings and goings, be it migrations of seasonal ice or generations of people.”
Gina Hollomon of Anchorage created a montage with the history of the Fur Rendezvous in Anchorage, calling it “It’s All About Glamour!” Using a series of photographs, both old and new, Hollomon created a collage that juxtaposes today’s Fur Rondy with the elegant social gala event of the past filled with the fur clad fashionistas of earlier days.
“Looking back through Alaska’s history, it’s always been clear that women were interested in fashion and glamour,” she said. “We can build a cabin, shoot a moose, mush dogs and swat mosquitos with the best, but give us an opportunity to show off the lady inside and well, watch out.” Hollomon’s piece makes a statement that whether it’s 1959 or 2009, glamour is always in style for Alaska ladies.
“Some of the pieces make a pretty clear statement about the road to statehood and life in Alaska for the past 50 years, but others take a more abstract view and have sparked a lot of conversation,” Hougland said.
“The Last Eskimo” by Mark Daughhetee of Anchorage is a mixed-media piece that uses a photograph of a boy with red hair in a picture frame with totem pole candles on each side. He based the work on a 14th century Florentine portable altarpiece. At the center of the piece is a painting on silk made in 1955 by a Japanese artist living on Kyushu Island, Japan. Daughhetee said he worked from a photograph of himself, at age 4, given to him by an aunt who was living in Japan.
Daughhetee said the piece was a nod to his 30 years in Alaska, offering a more personal perspective on Alaska history.
“...It touches on acculturation, global warming and industrial tourism,” Daughhetee said. “During those 30 years, much has changed.”
Daughhetee began his career in Alaska, first as a graphic designer and later a museum curator. His piece reflected on the many changes he’s seen during that time. “Cut-and-paste was done with a knife and hot wax. Alaska crossed four time zones. Polar bear habitats were in tact. Photographs were made from film, and communications, at least by today’s standards, were rudimentary,” he said.
While some pieces really get people reflecting on whether or not Alaska has progressed in 50 years, other pieces are clearly celebratory.
“The exhibit highlighting statehood is different because it isn’t strictly history nor is it strictly a celebration either, but each piece is thought-provoking for the viewer, ”Hougland said.
Anchorage artist Sheila Wyne’s “Alaskan Tourist” is a sculpture of a man who is covered with maps and a pair of binoculars with imbedded images.
“A lot of people love it or hate it and most can’t decide how they feel about it,” Hougland said. Wyne used a variety of images to place in the binoculars and it leaves a question to viewers as to what she meant by those.
“A lot of the artists aren’t necessarily favorable about the past 50 years, but they are offering some pretty detailed commentary on our state,” Hougland added. “I wasn’t here in 1959 so to see something like this on display, as I’m here today in 2009, gives me a glimpse into what people think of the last 50 years and what has and has not changed.”
The Bear Gallery is open noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The exhibit will be closed for the Thanksgiving holiday on Nov. 26 and 27. The final day of the exhibit is Nov. 28.
Contact staff writer Rebecca George at 459-7504.