Retirement is fertile artistic ground for local couple

Husband and wife team Sarah Isto and Gordon Harrison to open joint exhibit Friday at the JAHC

Literary and visual art intertwines in “Together,” a joint exhibit by husband-and-wife team Gordon Harrison and Sarah Isto, opening Friday at the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council Gallery.


Local writer Isto composed poems for the show and Harrison gave them visual presence through calligraphy and other artwork, such as his block prints. The couple’s complimentary yet distinct art forms work together in a way that is mutually beneficial – with Harrison’s visual choices accentuating a poem’s tone, for example, or Isto’s poems bringing context to her husband’s imagery.

Isto and Harrison said they didn’t set out to create art that complemented the other’s chosen genre. Both had already settled on their means of expression before deciding it would work well together.

“She found her way to poetry quite independently and I found my way to calligraphy,” Harrison said. “(We realized) we were doing things that were compatible. It was spontaneous, and sort of fortuitous.”

The first few joint pieces the couple produced were basically practice works for Harrison’s calligraphy, an art form he is still learning. Needing material, he turned to Isto’s poems and the couple liked the resulting combinations. As the pieces began accumulating, friends encouraged them to consider an exhibit.

Isto said the process of inspiration works both ways.

“Sometimes it will be something Gordon did that will get me to write something, and sometimes I will write something and he’ll do an illustration (for it),” she said.

One example from the show is a woodblock print of a cabin in Denali where the couple spends part of every year. Isto composed the accompanying poem in response to Harrison’s print, pulling in imagery from the landscape of that area.

Up until recently, the couple held demanding jobs that didn’t allow much time for artistic pursuits — Isto as a doctor and co-founder of Valley Medical Care (with Paul Simpson), and Harrison as executive director of the Alaska Legislative Research Agency, among other titles. But after retirement, creative opportunities opened up.

“In retirement, it’s really been wonderful for us to each have something that greatly interests us,” Isto said.

Isto, raised in Fairbanks, has published two books, “The Fur Farms of Alaska: Two Centuries of History and a Forgotten Stampede” and “In Good Company: A Mining Family in Fairbanks, Alaska.” She made the switch from prose to poetry a few years ago.

“I was ready to do a different kind of writing, so I started writing poetry,” Isto said. “It was a new thing for me. I’ve always loved poetry, even in the dark ages, when I was mostly reading medical journals, I did read poetry, because it’s short and I like it a lot.”

Isto said another thing that encouraged her to start writing poetry was her subconscious, which started feeding her lines as she slept.

“I think there are things that come from long life experience that stay with you and reappear in dream life. My dreams have always been very pictorial, and now it’s words,” she said. “Sometimes I’m just working around (a line) that has apparently come to me while I’m sleeping.”

Harrison has been involved in many different types of art over the past few years, including ceramics and woodworking. Calligraphy currently has most of his attention. Though he’s attended out-of-town workshops that have helped him learn the craft, in Juneau he’s kind of on his own to progress as a calligrapher, he said.

“I’m very much a beginner,” he said. “I felt like I was 62 or 63 and decided I was going to play the violin with no experience with music. I’m not an illustrator, I’m not an artist, so it was really starting from scratch. It’s a lot of work and practice, like learning to play the piano or something. I’m coming at it with no real background. But it’s fun, it’s absorbing, and that’s all that matters.”

In preparing for the show, the only feedback Harrison got from Isto about presenting her poems visually was to make them legible. This meant he didn’t have an opportunity to explore the more “expressive and gestural” kinds of calligraphy that artists down South often experiment with, where the letterforms essentially become unreadable shapes, rendered as abstract art.

“I couldn’t get into that for this show because legibility was really key here,” he said. “So it’s all very subdued. It’s not highly embellished or flourished.”

The couple, who work on separate floors from their home in the highlands, and said they don’t attempt to cross over into each other’s creative territory.

“He is reluctant to try poetry and I’m very reluctant to try calligraphy,” Isto said. “My handwriting is not as bad as some doctors, but it’s not very good.” She laughed.

Harrison said though he doesn’t write poetry himself, experiencing it through his wife has caused him to develop an appreciation for the form.

“I’ve never understood poetry or liked it much but I love all of Sarah’s poems,” he said. “I think it’s because I recognize the imagery. A lot of her poems are drawn from experiences we’ve shared together,” he said.

Later this month, Isto and Harrison will each host events related to their art forms.

Harrison will give an informal talk on calligraphy, possibly accompanied with a slide show, on Wednesday, Nov. 12, at 7:30 p.m. at the JACC, in the JAHC Gallery where his show is being exhibited.

“I’m calling it a conversation,” he said. “It’s not going to be a lecture or any instruction or anything, I’m just trying to bring people out of the woodwork who might be interested in calligraphy — either they’re doing it or have done it or want to do it. So I hope we’ll get a discussion going.”

Less than a week later, Isto will host a poetry reading that highlights local writing groups on Monday, Nov. 17, at 7 p.m. at the JACC. Isto herself takes part in the Burn Thompson group and 49 Writers.

“I tried to invite people to read from all of the various groups involved with poetry,” Isto said. “So there’s Bill Merk from the Poetry Slam, Emily Wall from the university, Susi Gregg Fowler from 49 Writers, Dick Stokes from the Burn Thompson Group at the library. And I think we’re going to have a special guest but I’m still working on that. The idea was to have Juneau poets read and each person just say a few words about the groups they have been involved in.”

For more on “Together” or related events, visit


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