Painter Dan Fruits’ interpretations of the Juneau landscape may have more in common with sculpture than with photography; in many of his works, familiar elements -- trees, mountains, mist -- are reformed and reshaped, often in ways he often doesn’t foresee, guided by the process of discovery, his medium, and his internal sense of what works. He isn’t worried about representing things as they are, and in fact avoids doing that when he can help it.
“If I’m painting a rock, when I realize I’m painting a shadow for that rock, and thinking about light direction, I know I’m losing the painting,” he said earlier this week.
He takes his time – it’s not unheard of for him to spend six months on a painting, while working on others simultaneously. And sometimes his sense of “what works” is fleeting -- he’s been known to reclaim a painting from his own living room wall to work on it a little more after noticing something that’s not quite right (much to the chagrin of his wife, Karen Crane). But eventually, some of his pieces meet with his satisfaction, and Friday Juneau will get to see a selection of those pieces at the opening of Fruits’ new exhibit at the Juneau Douglas City Museum. The show, “New Works,” will be on view for the whole summer in the main gallery.
The exhibit represents work done over the past year, with some older re-worked pieces mixed in, including “Annie’s Beach,” and a couple of paintings of interior Alaska. In addition to Fruits’ evocative landscapes, the show includes some unusual subjects for the local painter – a bear, a lighthouse, a portrait of a girl – as well as a mountain scene that is a bit more abstract that those familiar with his work may be used to.
“It looks like Sue Kraft painted it,” Fruits said with a laugh, referring to a local painter whose work he admires. “But not when you get close, because there’s my heavy-handed technique.”
The painting, “Snow Pattern,” was inspired by a trip to Berners Bay, and the patterns of the snow melt on the side of the mountains. The image stuck in his head for months before he began to paint.
Fruits often uses an image or a memory as a jumping off place for his explorations. Like the motifs of the impressionists -- a garden, for example -- the starting image gives him something to work with; as he goes, the subject has increasingly little to do with it.
“It’s the reason to make a painting,” he said. “(But as with the impressionists) it’s not the garden, it’s the artwork.”
For Fruits, Juneau’s islands could be considered a motif. Or the Chilkats, a subject he gets to study every day from the windows of his house out at 19 mile. One of his Chilkat paintings, “Chilkat Study,” was recently selected for the Anchorage Museum’s prestigious “All Alaska Juried Art Exhibition, currently traveling the state. Fruits was the only Juneau artist represented in the highly competitive show that accepts less than 10 percent of those who submit their work for consideration.
“Chilkat Study” and a sister painting in the current show developed from a different sort of motif: an exploration of the idea of the “dazzle” paint jobs (geometric patterns in contrasting colors) used on WWI ships as a kind of camouflage.
“In WWI, British ships, especially the Dreadnoughts, had ‘dazzle’ paint jobs to break up the lines of the ship,” he said. “Sometimes the Chilkats have that dazzle pattern.”
For Fruits, one of the important parts of the creative process is the back-and-forth that develops once he’s started painting. He feels more affinity with abstract expressionist painters than with representational painters -- his favorites include Clyfford Still and Chaïm Soutine -- and said he rarely transfers something onto canvas as it appears to his eye.
“I like abstract but you wouldn’t know it,” he said with a laugh.
“If I could paint like de Kooning I would. If I could paint like Van Gogh I would.... You do the best with what you got, it’s all OK. And that’s really what its about.”
Fruits, 72, moved to Juneau in 1991, and has taught art in Juneau schools as an artist-in residence and at the University of Alaska Southeast. In the 1970s and 1980s, he taught around the state with the Artists in the Schools program in Cordova, Craig, Chevak, Russian Mission, Bethel and other places. His original visit to Alaska in the 1970s was inspired by a viewing of the Cape Dorset prints produced in the late 1950s in Nunavut, Canada, and for a while he concentrated on printmaking. But now he focuses on painting, working in both acrylic and oil. His last show was in 2009 at the Alaska State Museum.
Fruits said he thinks the current show may be some of his best work yet. It wasn’t easy for him to deem the pieces done and ready to hang, but in that he was encouraged by his wife Karen, a very positive and rational influence on him when he gets too far afield.
“If you took our profiles and made gaps of where we’re weak and where we’re strong, and then overlaid them, there would be a solid line,” he said. “We’re opposites. I think it’s really healthy.”
Fruits’ opening runs from 4:30-7 at the city museum Friday.