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`Fowler applies his brush to ‘Patsy Ann’

Posted: March 30, 2011 - 6:53pm  |  Updated: March 31, 2011 - 7:56am
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   courtesy of jim fowler
courtesy of jim fowler

Local art lovers are used to scouring the galleries and museums for the latest works by their favorite artists — many of us will hitting the streets this Friday evening doing just that — but viewing art on the wall isn’t the only way to experience it. Another rich, perhaps less readily apparent art source is the children’s section of local bookstores. Many kids books contain remarkable collections of illustrations by Alaska artists; a very recent local example is Jim Fowler’s paintings for “Patsy Ann of Alaska,” just released by Sasquatch Books.

Hearthside Books will host the local painter during a First Friday reception at their downtown location.

“Patsy Ann,” the 13th children’s book Fowler has illustrated, was written by Tricia Brown, who lived in Alaska for more than 20 years before relocating to Oregon. Fowler was recommended for the project by Sarah Asper-Smith, whose vibrant picture book “Have you Ever Seen a Smack of Jellyfish?,” also published through Sasquatch, is another great example of a local artist’s work on the page.

Fowler’s other illustration projects include “Benny’s Flag” and “First Salmon” as well as six books written by his wife, Susie Gregg Fowler, and “The Secret Moose,” written by Juneau’s Jean Rogers.

For the new book, Fowler created more than 30 acrylic paintings of Juneau’s most famous canine and her human companions, as well as scenes of Juneau’s streets and docks as they might have appeared in the 1930s.

For Fowler, book illustrations involve an artistic approach very different from his usual routine as a plein-air landscape painter, but it’s a contrast he said he enjoys.

“It’s a different intellectual process. I wouldn’t want to do it solely, but I think with my landscapes and this, they kind of play off of each other. They’re not the handled the same but … the discipline and speed of working translates over to working outside.”

One difference between the two artistic approaches is the intense focus and deadline-driven nature of book projects. Another difference for Fowler, who works outdoors as much as possible, is that book work is very studio-based. And, for the books he usually shifts from his usual subject, landscapes, to a populated world. Fowler said he used to include people and animals in his work, but, with the exception of the charcoal portraits he sometimes does for his art class at Cedar Park or for family, he now enjoys the broader focus of landscape painting.

“If I could figure out an organic way to put people or wildlife back in my paintings, I would do it but I cant come up with something satisfactory,” Fowler said.

When illustrating, Fowler said he occasionally uses live models, but when it came to Patsy herself, nary a model could be found.

“The first thing I did was contact all the vets in town, and the animal shelters to see if they had any English bull terriers … and then I went around posting things on bulletin boards around town. But I got no responses.”

Luckily the library provided enough material for him to get her right, though Fowler said he uses photographs only as a preliminary reference; once he begins to sketch he leaves them behind.

Patsy Ann, memorialized in a bronze statute on the downtown docks, was a fixture in town through the 1930s. Given the title of “Official Greeter of Juneau,” by the Juneau mayor in 1934, she had an uncanny knack for knowing when and where ships were going to dock long before they could be seen in the area — and she was completely deaf.

Though not especially “cute” by most standards — she was described in the Daily Alaska Empire in 1933 as having a “dingy white coat” and “pathetic pink-rimmed eyes,” — the dog’s personality and friendliness endeared her to visitors and locals alike.

Fowler said his wife’s grandparents lived in Juneau at that time and fondly remembered the dog. He enjoyed trying to get her personality to come across through the images.

“This was a fun book to do,” he said.

After receiving the manuscript for the book, Fowler made a series of thumbnail sketches, essentially laying out the entire book in miniature. He worked with an art director, a first for him, and sent the sketches to her for approval before moving on. Once that was granted, he moved on to full-size pencil sketches of each spread, working out the placement of the text by including taped-on print-outs of the words for that spread. Most of the sketches stayed pretty close to the thumbnails he generated, he said, though two entire spreads changed completely: A group of musicians became a team of ballplayers, and a downtown street scene became a snow-covered dock scene. After both those changes were approved, he moved on to the paintings themselves, done on heavy, 140-pound paper.

Fowler said he tried to begin a new painting every day to give himself enough time to make changes to each one.

“Some of them were more difficult than others. The one with the dog trying to get his collar off was pretty challenging.”

When complete, the set of paintings was mailed to the art director. Though the communication process involved lots of e-mailing back and forth, Fowler doesn’t use a computer for any part of the artistic process, relying on paper, pencil and paint -- and the U.S. mail.

“It would have taken me three times as long to do by computer,” he said laughing.

Fowler said he may schedule a showing of the original paintings, as well as others he has done for book projects, at some point in the future. In the meantime, he’s got a show of his landscape paintings coming up in May at the Franklin Street Gallery in the Baranof.

He’s eager to get back outside.

“I’m making lists and waterproofing boots.”

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