FAIRBANKS — News came in mid-July that New York’s Alaska House, a high-end showcase of Alaska Native art, was closing — or, in the words of the group’s press release, “actively seeking to sublease its 3,000-square-foot gallery and meeting space in SoHo.”
But the other Alaska House — the one actually in Alaska, the original — is still open.
At this writing, Fairbanks’ Alaska House Art Gallery is concluding a two-month show by plein air painter Bill Brody. This month it will present a major retrospective of works by Claire Fejes, the artist and author who started the enduring gallery on Cushman Street 50 years ago.
On a recent visit one might see new pieces by some of the state’s best-known cutting edge contemporary artists, like Sonya Kelliher-Combs. But there is also work by Alaska’s old masters that would be almost impossible to find in Anchorage shops. Drawings by George Aghupuk, a frequent visitor to the gallery in years gone by. A watercolor painting of a polar bear by James Kivetoruk Moses, who, with his wife, sometimes spent the night within these walls when they came in from Nome.
And, in one corner, a print by Rockwell Kent.
“He was here when Mom opened this gallery,” said Yolande Fejes, Claire’s daughter. “He had the first show she ever held here.”
There’s more than art at Alaska House — there’s a whole lot of history.
Claire Specht was born to immigrant parents in New York in 1920. While a teenager, she trained in stone-carving and sculpture. She married Joe Fejes in 1942 and, shortly after the end of World War II, moved with him to Fairbanks, where he hoped to find work as a miner.
It’s not accurate to say that Feyes’ first Alaska show, at a USO club in May, 1946, made a splash in the Fairbanks art scene; aside from her, there was no such thing. Though still in Fairbanks, Theodore Lambert had become a recluse and would soon leave without anyone noticing he was gone. Rusty Heurlin was working in Ester. But Alaska’s few professional artists mostly lived in Anchorage or Seattle. Big names like Fred Machetanz, Marvin Mangus, the Goodales and Rie Munoz had yet to emerge.
For several years Fejes often worked in a freezing cabin. The cold, in part, led her to turn from sculpture to oil paints. In conjunction with Joe’s Hobby Shop on Second Avenue, she opened the first art supply store in Fairbanks and used it to display work by herself and other local artists in 1956. It was billed as “the farthest north art gallery in the world.”
She met Native carvers and artists, marveled at their talent and was fascinated by their stories. In 1958, in a “breakaway decision,” she packed her painting supplies and a tent and headed for Northwest Alaska to a whaling camp, Sesualik (also spelled Sheshalik). The work that emerged from that trip and subsequent visits to rural Alaska established her as an original and formidable talent.
Working with paint slathered straight on Masonite with a palette knife, Fejes depicted daily life of Inupiaq people — women in particular — in an unromantic, blocky, frank manner enlivened by vivid colors and streamlined content.
The Sesualik paintings — which would be followed by more trips to rural Alaska — created a sensation when first shown in Fairbanks at the end of 1958. She was invited to display work in Seattle and New York.
“She puts one in mind of Gaugin,” wrote Arts Magazine critic Sidney Tilllim, who praised her “self-reliant honesty of vision” and “bold, simple forms.”
“There is conviction, enthusiasm, vitality and direct communication in the paintings,” wrote the Christian Science Monitor of her show at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle.
Her subjects, as much as her treatment, marked a new direction in northern art. In a catalog for a 1991 show of Fejes’ work at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, Mary Goodwin noted, “Here is one of the rare female voices reflecting the woman’s side of Arctic society.”
In 1964 the Alaska House Art Gallery relocated to the current building, which is where Rockwell Kent showed up. Fejes originally contacted him about his writing, Yolande Fejes said. Though Kent considered himself as much an author as an artist, the rest of the world mostly paid attention to his prints and illustrations. So he was flattered when a woman from Alaska, where he had already spent some time, complimented his literary efforts.
“His show sold out,” Yolande Fejes reported. “That’s why there are so many Rockwell Kents in this town. She pushed hard to get the ones in the library too.”
The Kents in the Noel Wien Public Library are among Alaska’s most important artistic treasures. They include a large painting, “Villagers,” and a series of drawings, etchings and lithographs.
There are similarities between the art of Kent and Fejes; both reflect sculptural influences, for example. Their thoughts about writing also ran parallel. Kent recommended Fejes to his publisher. The result was “The People of the Noatak,” which attracted positive national notice. “The book holds the reader by its intensity, its authenticity,” said the New York Times. “It is a book for people who want an account that they can read and reread.”
Fejes would exhibit her paintings at venues from Tokyo to Israel. She continued to publish, paint and exhibit into her seventh decade, when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Over breakfast with this writer in Anchorage during the mid-’90s, she didn’t downplay her peril, but neither did she complain. Her attitude was stoic and robust. Though physically battered, she effused confidence about her accomplishments and her place as an artist. “I’m the only Alaskan who’s ever had a solo show in New York and a book on the New York Time’s best-seller list,” she said.
What distressed her most was that she would have to spend so much of her remaining time getting treatment in the Lower 48.
“(Alaska) is my inspiration,” she once said. “I don’t feel like painting in New York or any other place. This is where I’m inspired by the people and the land. It just comes pouring out of me when I’m here. When I’m any other place, I don’t even want to paint.”
She died in Carlsbad, Calif., on Oct. 27, 1998.
SUSTAINING THE LEGACY
Alaska House is one of the most picturesque buildings in Alaska, The 1930s log and rock home has an enormous, steep, attractively proportioned roof, quaint yet generous leaded windows and a spectacular chimney. It was the Fejes family home before it became a gallery.
Joe Fejes built an addition (now a Permanent Fund dividend office) from which he ran his hobby shop. A violinist with the Fairbanks Symphony, he once brought Isaac Stern home for a moose dinner. Another visiting virtuoso was singer Marilyn Horne; Claire painted her portrait.
In the 1980s, the Alaska House stock and name were sold to state legislator Charlie Parr and his wife. When they retired, the doors closed on what hitherto had been the oldest art gallery in continuous operation in Alaska.
After Claire’s death, however, her children reacquired the name. The house had remained with the family and they decided to once again make it a showcase for art.
“My mother had a vivid sense of her own destiny,” said Yolande Fejes. “After her death, we realized it had become a legacy — for me, my brother, Mark, and my husband, Ron (Veliz). We established an archive for her work and re-opened the family art gallery.”
Today the Alaska House remains faithful to Fejes’ vision. In addition to Brody’s big canvases, there are prints by Sara Tabbert and Nathalie Parenteau, watercolors by Gael Murakami and oil landscapes by Jesse Venable — all focused on Alaska (or Canadian) subject matter.
A number of impressive Native artists also have items prominently displayed: carvings by Earl Atchak, masks by Gilber Schaeffer, dolls by Penny Abraham.
Some of the more interesting work is by sculptor Bobby Nashookpuk, whose family roots are in the Point Hope area where Fejes often visited and painted. Nashookpuk stretches traditional Inuit forms into lively and surreal shapes.
There are also “recycled” pieces from estates, masterfully executed Native crafts, carvings, baskets from a bygone generation. One miniature ivory totem is a classic of tourist trade art dating from the 1930s.
Tourism — or the lack of it — continues to dog the Alaska art scene now. Yolande Fejes has heard that Fairbanks tourism may have dropped 50 percent in the last two years. “We are feeling that; there’s no doubt,” she said.
Two major Fairbanks art outlets closed in the past 12 months. Gift shops remain open and several non-gallery businesses include some art among their wares. But only Alaska House and the Well Street Art Company, a collaborative effort of several leading Fairbanks artists including David Mollett and Rachelle Dowdy, have the feel of serious art outlets.
Yet the Fejes heirs do not appear inclined to turn out the lights. On Aug. 6, “Claire Fejes: The Legacy” will open at Alaska House. The museum-style exhibit will include photographs of Fejes working, with her family, in the villages, newspaper clippings and memorabilia.
The star attractions will be a number of Fejes paintings from the trove she left behind with her family: 12 drawings, six watercolors, six oil canvases.
Most, like “The Death of Rosa,” have rarely been shown in public. The 24-by-30 inch painting shows village women mourning over the body of a girl who died from tuberculosis.
Those familiar with Fejes’ work will recognize the solid colors and chunky anatomy, the absence of incidental detail or special lighting effects, the Giotto-like bluntness that marks her best-known work.
But the action, subject and treatment suggest more. One can take away references to a great swath of art history — Caravaggio, David, Goya, impressionism, primitivism and more — all compressed into this intensely intimate scene in an Inupiaq home.
“She was an invited guest in the villages,” said Yolande Fejes. “And she took it to heart.”
In a similar way, her heirs have taken her life’s passion to heart. They are working with Jean Blodgett, an international authority in Canadian Inuit art, to produce a book about Fejes drawn from her art and her journals. “She was writing journals from age 13 on,” said her daughter. “And she kept them all, so that we wouldn’t forget.”
The Alaska House too is something the Fejes family wants people to remember and they’re taking steps to see it happen. Yolande said her brother keeps the structure in meticulous order. A sense of care and affection seems to emanate from the beautiful old building.
“We lovingly wash all of the logs,” she said, “every spring.”
Mike Dunham is the Anchorage Daily News entertainment editor. Contact him at online at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.