Juneau’s Kent Crabtree is a Renaissance man. The second time I met him, he brought me in his skiff out to an artist retreat he built himself, pulled a live crab from a pot on the way and then served it to me for lunch on one of the best salads I’ve ever had.
After spending the afternoon with Kent and his wife Julie Crabtree, I came to understand why they named the waterfront home Lucky We.
Before meeting Julie, Kent bought a piece of land on Douglas Island, south of the area known as Lucky Me, a roadless community accessible by a long walk or a short boat ride. He built a small waterfront cabin on his property and, eventually, a main house with the help of his friends.
With Lucky We, Kent got what he wanted: to live remotely and have a career. Now, with a house in town and one off the grid, he and his wife Julie have the best of both worlds.
Kent designed the timber-frame home himself, although his occupation as a fisheries biologist didn’t train him for architecture design. He said he taught himself the necessary skills by reading books in the library.
“I basically winged it,” he said.
The main house, built in two summers, has large skylights and strategically placed windows that open to allow rising heat from the main floor to warm the loft bedroom. The house is filled with paintings and art supplies, and there are inspiring nature scenes out every window. Kent even made his own stained glass light fixtures out of beach glass he collected.
Kent and Julie use the house as an artists’ retreat when they aren’t living in their downtown house. They paint out on the beach for hours or take up other bright nooks in the house. They say the remoteness of the space helps them create.
“Just the fact that we are off the grid with no distractions — we never know what time it is — that helps the art,” Kent said.
Kent and Julie, who initially met through mutual friends at the Alaska’s Folk Festival, were acquaintances for many years, unaware that the other was an artist until they stumbled upon each other’s exhibits. They eventually began dating.
They got married in January of this year in a surprise wedding ceremony at their Lucky We home. They currently have a joint art show hanging through the end of May at the Heritage Second Street Café downtown.
Kent, originally from Eugene, Ore., began painting after doing research on how to make stained glass windows for his house. He’d always liked Henry Matisse, and thought Matisse’s colorful cut-outs would lend themselves well to stained glass. He began thumbing through art books and, after immersing himself on the floor of the University of Alaska Southeast Egan Library for hours, he became inspired.
“I got so excited, I thought, ‘Screw windows, I want to paint,’” Kent said with a laugh. He immediately went out and got some discount, off-color paints at the paint store and a piece of plywood, then went back to his cabin and started to paint. He eventually took some art classes with John Fehringer at UAS.
In addition to being a biologist, a painter and a carpenter, Kent is a rhythm guitar player for the Chillkats and is the only founding member left in town. He has also dabbled in jewelry-making and even designed the couple’s wedding rings.
Julie realized she had a talent for drawing in high school after taking a couple of art classes, and she majored in art for a year at Ball State University in Indiana. Her favorite painter is Georgia O’Keefe.
“I guess I had a natural knack for drawing, it was my first awareness. I didn’t actually know I could draw up to that point,” Julie said, adding that she eventually changed her major.
Julie arrived in Kodiak in 1993 as a Coast Guard firefighter and eventually found her way to Juneau in 2000. While she was in Kodiak she used her drawing talents to paint names on boats, restaurant signs and even took jobs painting houses.
In addition to painting, she also loves photography, beading and necklace-making, juggling those artistic pursuits with her job as a bodywork specialist and her role as a mother of two children.
Julie has done bodywork for 13 years, and for the last six she has specialized in structural integration at her company Deep River Body Work in the Valentine Building.
“We basically reorganize the basic tissue in the human body, make people feel better, stand up straighter, walk better,” Julie said.
After having her first child nine years ago, she decided she wanted to do art again, and set a goal to have a show. She began doing art alone in the middle of the night. But this all changed when she started creating art with Kent and collaborating with him.
“I’d never done art with anyone before, that sounded really weird,” said Julie, who has since changed her mind.
“I had these preconceived ideas that I only do art alone, in the middle of the night, hunched over the table — I had these ideas that that was the only way I could produce art.”
Kent thought she looked uncomfortable.
“She had a wonderful art show and all of the pieces had at least 20-50 hours put into them, but she’d be sitting in a chair all balled up in the fetal position and she’d talk about how exhausting that work was and how her body was so sore,” Kent said. “it was a foreign idea to her — painting together. She wouldn’t talk about anything, she was used to being completely alone in her own world.”
He built her a fully adjustable beach easel.
“It got her standing up and stretching out and painting like a human being, in the middle of the day,” said Kent laughing.
Julie went from drawing realistic, identifiable things to more abstract paintings.
“By painting together, it (the art) started to develop a life of it’s own,” she said. “We paint together and listen to music and laugh and sing or are quiet for a long time. I started loosening up — now I dance when I paint and do heel clicks and we talk.”
To sell or not to sell
The couple has differing ideas about the fate of their paintings; Kent wants to keep them, Julie wants to let them go.
Kent has had two art shows but this is the first show in which he’s been willing to sell any of his work. Consequently he has hundreds of paintings in storage. His art is personal to him. He only sold one piece of art in the fourth grade and sees mixing money and art as somehow taking away the purity of the art. He has started to change his mind about this however.
“Why not sell them if someone wants to buy it and put it on their wall?” Julie said.
Advice for beginning artists
Both Julie and Kent think art should be accessible to everyone. They make their own canvases using plywood and Kilz paint. They use brushes but also use sticks and twigs and other organic materials to paint. They use materials found on the beach.
“I’m totally into cheap materials,” said Kent, “I’m all about that.”
Their art can be seen at the Heritage Second Street Cafe downtown through the end of May.
• Courtney Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org