FAIRBANKS — A local artist wondered if artistic talent is something people are born with or if it can be cultivated; two months later, Fairbanks got the answer.

As part of the First Friday art shows on Sept. 7, three amateur artists under the tutelage of Kesler Woodward displayed their work at Fairbanks Distilling Company as part of an upcoming TV series exploring whether or not art is a natural talent.

KUAC TV 9 producer Mak Landry was inspired to create a program, “Into the Woods,” after a conversation about Woodward’s own late start in the arts world.

“One day I was going on a rant about how everybody seems to think that art is some sort of magical thing that you can do or you can’t do, and that there’s no such thing as talent,” Woodward said, “and that it’s all about hard work, and dedication, and commitment and willing to take chances.”

Landry said there was no “Eureka moment.” The whole series was a process from conversation, to recruitment, to First Friday and what happened after.

Who wants to be an artist?

The first step on this venture was to locate amateurs willing to try. Woodward had a place to start. Marian Lundquist, a retired teacher and friend, immediately came to mind.

“She made the mistake of saying to me one day that she would love to take a workshop from Margo Klass, who is one of the artists here in town,” Woodward said, “but of course, she had no talent, so she could never do that. I said ‘Un-uh, have I got an idea for you.’”

Lundquist recalls her nerves as she started the project and her excitement for the opportunity to work with Kes.

“How many times does one get to have a door open to something like that?” she said.

KUAC searched for candidates “man on the street” style, taking their cameras into the Fairbanks streets to look for people.

“I was standing at Sadler’s parking lot waiting for a ride to come and get me,” Guy Gaswint said. “And a camera comes up and they asked me ‘Hey, you want to learn how to make art?’ So I said, ‘I guess so.’”

From the same search, the KUAC crew discovered Cy Greig.

Greig, 25, is the youngest of the novice artists selected for the project, and he was interested in the premise of the show.

“It was pretty interesting,” he said. “It’s kind of fun.”

A personal philosophy

“Into the Woods” at first doesn’t seem like a title applicable to a series about amateur artists, but all it takes is a hike up to Woodward’s studio to begin to understand. The winding path into the Alaska hills and the deep quiet of the woods foster a peaceful atmosphere; it’s the space Woodward works in and the place he brought his mentees to paint.

Landry said the “Into the Woods” concept came from Woodward’s feelings about art being a practice, not some magic trick.

“It kind of sums up a lot of what his beliefs about art are,” Landry said.

Woodward did not begin his academic career an artist — in fact, he only took his first college art class because his wife was taking the same class. Until he met his mentor in college, he said he never considered art to be something he would make a career of.

Woodward said a person can choose to be an artist, not just aspire to become one, and he shared his feelings on the process with his mentees.

“This is not a class, this is not a workshop, this is an adventure,” he said, “and I’m just going to take you into the deep woods of being an artist and be your guide, be your mentor and be someone who can help you find your way into the woods and find your way out.” 

The shooting process

Landry and her crew shot footage over the course of two, tight months.

“That was probably the most difficult part — just getting a shooting schedule that worked out for everybody,” she said.

They ended up filming the first month of art sessions in July, then getting individual artist footage in August, before shooting final session with Woodward and the First Friday show at Fairbanks Distilling Company.

“I think, for me, having this succeed for Makenzie was as important as having it succeed for these budding artists,” Woodward said.

Together he, the KUAC crew, and the other artists spent the summer working on the program that will debut Sept. 22.

Woodward did few demonstrations, wanting to see what his students created naturally. He gave them materials and tasked them with self-portraits, pastels and perspective assignments. He read excerpts from a book about Patagonia and had each artist paint what they envisioned.

Lundquist recalls every assignment as being based around concepts. The self-portrait challenge initially seemed daunting, but she found inspiration in her morning tea. Her self-portrait shows her as a tea pot, smiling out of the canvas.

Greig enjoyed playing with perspective. He liked his taramasco drawing, how it plays with shade. He said working on abstract art changed how he visualizes things creatively.

Gaswint said he went a bit “off track” with some of his work. He found scraps to make sculptures from and ending up crafting flowers and mushrooms, painting them with automotive paint. 

The ‘very first’ Friday

Every artist’s self-portrait assignment hung on the walls of Fairbanks Distilling Company on Sept. 7. The Distillery was packed front to back with viewers holding cocktails, KUAC employees handing out filming waivers, servers carrying snack trays and visitors peering through the front door.

“I think that it is a wonderful opportunity for local artists to express their inner artist journey,” Carlynn Winks, a distillery visitor, said while facing the wall of Greig’s works.

Greig couldn’t be present at the opening, but his self-portrait smiled down above everyone who looked into the gallery. His works twisted with abstract shapes and lines. A taramasco hung silent and bold by the window. Greig enjoyed the process and plans to continue painting as a creative outlet. He said that when people think of artists, they think of Van Gogh or Salvador Dali, but that isn’t necessarily the case.

“They don’t think of people doing art shows,” he said, “and maybe making stuff in their spare time.”

Lundquist said she was initially overwhelmed. Regardless, her happiness in sharing the project with the community was enough to overcome her other feelings.

A realistic painting of a nest hung over her shoulder on Friday; it’s the view from her daughter’s second story bedroom. She has decided to continue painting and has bought some more canvases for herself.

“I have a long way to go,” she said.

Gaswint, meanwhile, didn’t know what First Friday was until Woodward told the artists he’d found a venue to display their final pieces. He said Sept. 7 was his “very first First Friday.”

Gaswint’s mushroom sculptures sat in the garden outside the distillery. His next venture is learning to carve wood and he’s set up a gofundme page for people interested in aiding his endeavors at bit.ly/2NBHDlT.

“I’m just an old infantry soldier who had nothing to do with art until I met these guys,” he said.

He said that he believes art is channeled from human energy, that anyone who puts their energy into something is creating art, a visual interpretation of emotions.

Woodward, who got to be the guide he wanted to be, said he was inspired by the artists, by Landry’s work on the project and by the experience as a whole.

“I really thought of this as a hero’s quest,” he said, “and they all responded to my invitation to go on that hero’s quest and inspired me by the way they tackled it.”

Kyrie Long is an editorial assistant with the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. She can be reached at 459-7572.