My Turn: Muñoz-Gruening Artist-in-Residence Program shines light on local artists

Ernest Gruening State Historical Park is a small jewel in the Alaska Parks System portfolio of properties. Located 26 miles north of downtown Juneau, it features a cabin built on 13 acres of land homesteaded by the late Territorial Governor and U.S. Sen. Ernest Gruening. Purchased with a legislative appropriation in 1989, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Properties and is a State Historic Site.

 

This summer, an exciting new pilot program is underway at the Ernest Gruening Cabin, allowing Alaskan artists to inhabit this unique and historic property for one- to two-week residencies. This is an opportunity for artists to create new art in the beautiful seascape environs around the Peterson Creek Salt Chuck and the shores of Lynn Canal.

The Artist-in-Residence program has been named in honor of two Alaskans: Dorothy Gruening, late wife of Ernest Gruening, and beloved Juneau artist Rie Muñoz, who died earlier this year after a career spanning many decades delighting Alaskans and the world with her iconic creative vision. The Rie Muñoz-Dorothy Gruening Artist-in-Residence Program accepted applications from interested Alaskan artists earlier this year. Eight artists were selected to live for a week or two in the rustic but charming Gruening Cabin to create new work while refreshing their artistic visions.

The Muñoz-Gruening Artist-in-Residence Program is run by the Parks and Outdoor Recreation Division of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. The Alaska State Council on the Arts (on which I serve as chairman) provided some consultative assistance. For the pilot phase this year, artists wishing to participate had to submit a simple application including a brief résumé, professional references and a six-piece portfolio. Applicants were required to provide a statement of purpose, explaining the focus of the proposed residency, its relevance to Alaska’s State Parks and how the experience might serve to contribute to their personal growth as artists.

The Muñoz-Gruening Artist-in-Residence Program is a no-frills experience. The artists’ statements of purpose had to reveal their prior experiences in cabin living, with its limitations and deprivations. Wherever they’re coming from, the artists are responsible for all aspects of their transportation to and from Gruening State Historical Park and must bring all of their own food and bedding. The cabin features a kitchen with electricity and potable water, but there is not reliable cellular network coverage.

Each applicant had to conceive of a community workshop or presentation to be done in conjunction with the overall residency. All participating artists also agreed to donate to the state of Alaska a piece of the work created sometime up to six months following the residency.

This is the first year of the program, and it is encouraging that its participants are from several different Alaskan communities, given that the expenses of participating are borne solely by the artist.

The first 2015 artist-in-residence was Juneau artist Constance Baltuck. She has been followed by Anchorage painter Kurt Jacobsen, who held a public demonstration and workshop on a Friday afternoon in early July as part of his residency. Juneau’s Mark Vinsel and Diane Anderson of the Juneau Artists Gallery were the third in this summer’s lineup.

The next artist, starting early this month, is Nancy Crawford of Wasilla who paints in a variety of media. She will be followed by Donald Varnell, a Haida master-carver and educator from Ketchikan. September will first see artist and veterinarian Jim Leach of Birch Creek, with the final residency going to Juneau’s Puanani Maunu. Most of the participating artists’ websites are easily found, and they represent the highest levels of talent and creative ability in Alaska. Some of them report having really enjoyed their residency experience while others are looking forward to them.

Gruening is said to have enjoyed spending his time writing while at the family cabin, while his wife Dorothy was known for her love of painting the scenery that surrounded them. Given the creativity of the original occupants of the Gruening Cabin, it is only fitting that multiple Alaska artists from across the Last Frontier are now able temporarily to inhabit the same space, allowing them to create different types of works that continue to represent the strength and resilient creativity of Alaska.

The Muñoz-Gruening Artist-in-Residence Program’s 2015 pilot shows great promise for future years, helping to ensure the preservation of a unique public asset and natural space, while providing Alaskan artists with invigorating opportunities to advance their careers.

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