Lifelong Juneau resident Jay Crondahl has been exploring his home territory through paint for the great majority of his almost 80 years.
In some of his pieces, elements of our landscape — glaciers, mountains, devil’s club — are presented in a stylized, flattened way that highlights color, contrast and shape. In others, he takes a more impressionistic approach, applying the paint in quick dabs of color and texture. And some pieces are purely abstract, explorations of a different kind.
A range of these styles will be in evidence in Crondahl’s July solo show at Coppa, opening on this month’s First Thursday with a reception from 4:30-6 p.m.
Crondahl said he doesn’t see a need to be consistent.
“Some artists when they have a show, I suppose they want to stick to one thing, one style. I’ve never done that,” he said. “I like everything from abstract to something that attempts to be reality.”
Juneau-Douglas City Museum Director Jane Lindsay said for her, all of Crondahl’s styles reflect an underlying joy in the creation of the work. The museum owns Crondahl’s work as part of its permanent collection.
“I like that he conveys his delight of color and shape relationships when he builds a painting,” Lindsay said. “Whether it is a whimsical abstract, a representational landscape, or a street scene, to me, he is looking at it with fresh eyes rather than putting convention or formula into it. I think it’s tempting for a painter to ramp up color for effect in a painting, but I don’t get that when I look at Jay’s work, I think he uses color to convey light and mood, which to me is his deep appreciation and joy for life.”
Though Crondahl’s work has frequently appeared in group shows over the years, most notably with the Plein Rein painters, he has only had three solo shows during his 79 years in Juneau: his debut exhibit at the Ruby Room in December 2005, an exhibit at the Franklin Street Gallery in April 2011, and one at the Silverbow in April 2012. Deciding to do another show was a split second decision prompted by a visit to Coppa, he said.
“It was an innocent impulse without thinking,” Crondahl said, adding that the excitement of preparing for a show pushes him to be productive. “When you say ‘Marc (Wheeler), can I have a show at your coffee shop?’ you might get nervous and do a little more work.”
Crondahl was born at St. Ann’s Hospital in downtown Juneau in 1935, and spent most of his life as a resident of Starr Hill. He now lives in the Parkshore condos with his wife, Judy, of nearly 50 years.
Crondahl said art has always been a part of his life. The first money he ever earned was for art, a poster design for a contest organized by the U.S. Forest Service when he was a kid.
“I won $50 in a conservation poster contest,” he said. “I did a pastel drawing of a wolf skull and salmon head. That was my first $50.”
In high school, art teacher Max Lewis was an early influence, a man the teenage Crondahl looked up to for more than one reason.
“He was a survivor — and shouldn’t have been a survivor — of World War II,” Crondahl said of Lewis. “After what he went through, his body was full of shrapnel, he was not supposed to be alive, but he lasted a long time. And whenever someone had a folk dance he would get out on the floor and dance, despite the fact that usually when he was moving around he looked like he really hurt.”
After graduation in 1955, Crondahl decided he wasn’t “college material” — a decision he says he has now forgiven himself for — and continued to pursue art on his own. Along with friend and neighbor Rie Muñoz, he worked at the Alaska State Museum as a museum assistant, and has for many years been an active member of Plein Rein, a painting group that meets on Saturday mornings to paint outdoors (en plein air).
For long stretches of time, Crondahl said, his output was minimal.
“Oftentimes I would do one painting a year,” he said. “They all had the same title. ‘Cold Turkey.’” He chuckled. “I just thought it was funny. It’s kind of like reinventing the wheel if you don’t do something for awhile.”
In recent years his output has picked up a bit. For the Coppa show, he has repainted and rescued some older pieces and created new ones.
One older painting, called “Future Ocean,” shows the Mendenhall Glacier as a stark blue shape against black water, with a rock in the foreground.
“I started this one on site. Myself and my son-in-law paddled past the waterfall, Nugget Falls. You go for a fair distance and there’s a really nice beach on the right, a great place to camp. At that time, Mendenhall Glacier was right opposite that point. It’s not there anymore, it’s out of sight.”
Other older works include a serigraph of a 1977 Juneau Symphony poster Crondahl designed and a painted copy of Henri Matisse’s “Intérieur au violon” (he calls it “Matisse and Me”) he did many years ago that used to hang in the home of the late Jean and George Rogers.
New works include “Cove View,” a view of the Chilkats painted out at Sunshine Cove on a day when whales and sea lions kept him company, and two pieces that show fellow Plein Rein painters at work on site.
In general, Crondahl said the pieces he paints en plein air, such as these, tend to be more impressionistic.
“When I’m out painting and I’m trying to get it done in a short period of time, they are often very splashy, I dash and smash the paint on the canvas in a terrible frenzy,” he said with a laugh.
Of his color field landscapes, usually done in his studio, Crondahl said he sometimes hears from friends that less detail in a complex environment such as Southeast isn’t easy for them to pull off.
“I’ve had friends tell me that they have trouble not doing detail. That glacier (for example), we know there’s lots more detail in that glacier.”
Treating these natural elements as color fields allows him to manipulate the painting in a different way from a representational work, he said.
“If you’re working with large areas of color, then you have the chance to arrange the values of the colors so they do something illusionary,” Crondahl said, pointing out how the blue in one of his icebergs looks different depending on what is adjacent to it.
Crondahl keeps a number of journals — art pieces in themselves — with pages that fold out, accordion style, to reveal photos, sketches and descriptive notes that resemble prose poems. The journals, like the paintings, highlight the playfulness that underlies his work.
Plein Rein painter Cristine Crooks said this quality is part of what makes Crondahl an inspirating artist.
“I’m inspired by his creative spirit,” Crooks said. “He brings a fresh perspective to the group when he paints outside with Plein Rein.”
Crondahl’s work will be on view at Coppa for the month of July. To view the full list of First Thursday openings, visit juneauempire.com/firstfriday.
• Contact Arts Editor Amy Fletcher at email@example.com or at 523-2283.