Averyl Veliz is an Alaskan artist in many senses of the word. She lives in Juneau, as did her grandparents (her family’s roots in the state stretch back to 1914), and her art incorporates an Alaskan aesthetic, references Alaskan history and geography, and explores underlying cultural themes. All of these elements feed Veliz’ current exhibit of multilayered illustrations, each of which is immediately recognizable as Alaskan artwork — and as her own.
In her new exhibit, “A Klondike Tale: A Juneau Perspective,” currently on view at the Juneau Douglas City Museum, Veliz presents Juneau scenes residents will immediately recognize — Mount Jumbo, the Fourth Street stairs, Perseverance Trail — re-visioned in works that provoke shifts in perspective. The seven pieces, all new, are directly connected to a larger project — a planned feature-length, animated film project called “A Klondike Tale,” which Veliz has been working on for the past few years. Set in the 1890s in Skagway – or a super-version of Skagway that’s more like Juneau and Skagway combined – the planned film includes real life historical figures, such as Soapy Smith, as well as five central Tlingit characters she’s chosen to express in both animal and human form.
In previous exhibits, most recently a solo show at the Alaska State Museum a few months ago, Veliz’ work has focused on her characters, often through illustrations of climactic moments from her film script. With this show, she’s shifted her focus away from the main action to her backgrounds and locations she might include in the film.
“In the previous show I’d look at my script or think of my story line, and then I’d draw according to that,” she said. “But with this one I decided not to think about the story at all. In a way I wanted it to be image driven, experience driven.”
This shift gave her more creative freedom in terms of exploring her art, while still being relevant to the project.
“The cool thing about visual development is that even if the pieces aren’t directly used for the final film, they’re all used to push the story forward, or at least to be revelation points for the director, which in this case is me,” she said.
For this show she also moved her focus from Skagway to Juneau, in part because she was intrigued by the idea of including a mine in her film, and in part because she wanted a chance to explore some of the places she knows well, places she can see out her window or where she walks every day with her husband and infant son, Vincenzo.
“For example I love Mount Jumbo, mainly because I stare at it every day out my kitchen window. But it’s hard when you know you can just do one drawing of it, and you see it changing 20 times in one day — it’s hard to narrow it down.”
One piece that provided an artistic revelation point was “Last Chance,” which shows the AJ mine in Last Chance Basin. Veliz, whose own grandfather worked at the AJ mine, shows mine buildings on one side and a hillside incorporating subtle formline designs on the other.
By including formline design in the hillside she said she’s not really trying to show that the “land is alive.” Rather, she’s highlighting the idea that, despite all the activity in the area and mine’s destructive effects on the land itself, this is still Tlingit land, in ways too elemental to erase.
“I think going forward I would like to integrate more of the shapes into the landscape, because no matter how much you cut away at the land — and in this case we’re talking about mining because that’s how were telling the story — no matter how much you cut into the land and destroy it, you can't take away its identity.”
Most of the character illustrations for “A Klondike Tale” also feature formline elements, an important aspect of the design of the film for Veliz.
“I think that’s part of what makes the art beautiful, and its also what strongly ties the culture into the project. The whole project is about respect, it's about contact.”
Veliz, who grew up in Healy, spent her summers with her grandparents in Juneau. She fostered an early appreciation for formline design as well as a curiosity about Alaska history, particularly the Klondike Gold Rush. While in college in California, she continued to explore Alaska history through her art. The original idea for the “A Klondike Tale” came from one strong image that surfaced in her mind: a totem pole awakening on a mountainside, releasing its characters — eagle, orca, wolf, bear and beaver — into the world.
Veliz first envisioned the characters almost like Greek gods, embodying certain traits, but recently she’s come to see them as representing different reactions to contact.
“It’s not that any character has changed, but my view of them has changed,” she said. ‘Now they represent different ways that people handle contact. So my beaver character, he completely gives up himself, he lets western culture completely overtake him, he‘s ashamed of himself and loses himself from his original culture, and it’s not until he realizes and embraces his true identify that he’s able to pull himself back together.
“And my wolf character is the exact opposite. From the get-go he doesn’t want to have anything to do with the white man’s culture, he knows it’s dangerous. And each of the others handle it how they choose to handle it.”
Whether or not this concept is clear to her audiences isn’t really the point, she said; it helps her form a more complete picture of her story, just like the “Last Chance” piece.
“To me art is problem solving. So every piece of art I do is searching for an answer for something I’m trying to figure out. For every piece I have a moment of realization that will take me to the next step, maybe. Some of those are subtle things — I learned to do a technique in Photoshop, which is not that big a deal — (or maybe it’s) seeing a philosophical undertone.”
“The more I work with the story, the more philosophical I get — maybe because I think too much on it.”
Like the other works she’s created for her film project, the pieces in the city museum show reflect a color palette chosen in part for its historical appropriateness, featuring colors Toulouse-Lautrec was using across the world at that time in Paris. Some of the color combinations are not always visually pleasing, which is part of the point.
“I’m still very interested in Toulouse-Lautrec’s color palette, and I no longer even have to put effort into doing that, it’s become second nature, just natural to pick those colors.”
Veliz has also embraced a retro look in her animation style by leaving in pencil lines in some places.
“With the pencil-line showing through it’s very reminiscent of Walt Disney stuff right after WWII,” she said. "A lot of it that has pencil-line, because the studio was under threat of being shut down.”
Though it was economic considerations that made the animators leave it in, Veliz has embraced it for the way it looks.
At this point Veliz is putting together a “pitch bible” that she can market to animation studios both in the US and abroad. European animation studios might be more willing to embrace a mature-themed animation film, she said, but American studios are coming to accept that animation isn’t always kid-oriented. This film’s mature undertones and elements -- which include the creepy dolls used in Skagway to indicate a prostitute’s availability -- may not make it suitable for kids, which means a big studio like Disney might not want it, she said.
“But I don’t want to take away the darkness of it because I don’t want to dilute the message,” she said, adding that she is a huge Disney fan — even more so now that she’s a mom.
Right now she is also having someone in Juneau work on the script. Her fantasy would be to have the film made entirely in Alaska, with Alaskan artists and animators, but she’s not sure how realistic that is.
Animation is a very broad field that spans many stages of the creative process, from initial concept development and design (Veliz’s niche) on through production and post production. Though she has a master’s degree in animation and visual effects, Veliz would not be involved in the actual animation process for the film.
“People say, ‘Oh, are you going to animate this yourself?’, and I say, ‘For a feature length animated film you really need a whole studio to do it. One character might have ten animators working on it,’” she said.
She also gets a lot of questions about when the movie is coming out, and the answer is: not soon. Not surprisingly, the process of getting a film through all stages of creation is a long one.
“As my husband keeps reminding me, most film projects do take 5 to ten years from initial concept to on the big screen,” she said.
The work she did for the city museum show wasn’t essential to the project — she’s already got a hefty portfolio to show studios — but Veliz said it’s been totally worthwhile in terms of artistic development and in allowing her to actively create art again.
Veliz said she’s very committed to seeing the project all the way through.
“I don’t read my script very often, but when I do read it I get excited all over again. And think, ‘This has to be done!’ And I imagine how good it could be.”
“A Klondike Tail: A Juneau Perspective” will be on display in the audio/visual gallery of the city museum through Sept. 29. All pieces are for sale, and there are prints in the gift shop.
To read a previous empire story on Veliz, visit juneauempire.com/stories/020410/art_558709238.shtml
For more on Veliz, visit www.averylveliz.blogspot.com.