HOMER — As James Ward Quinlan lay dying, his family and friends honored him with a final gesture of love: a retrospective show of his art at the Homer Council on the Arts. Saturday afternoon, HCOA held an opening for the show.
Quinlan, 74, died at a hospice care facility in Homer on June 12.
The show came about originally when family and friends looked for a place to hold an expected memorial for the terminally ill Quinlan. Artist Pam Brodie, a longtime friend, found out the Homer Council on the Arts gallery would be available after the closing of the PhotoFest show last week. Then the idea came up. Why not have an art show?
“People like me for years had been encouraging him to do another show,” said Larry Smith, Brodie’s partner and another longtime friend of Quinlan. “He did agree that this was fine to do at this point.”
Artist Asia Freeman, who knew Quinlan since she was 6, agreed to help hang the show. The call went out to locals who owned Quinlan paintings. By June 11, about 30 paintings hung on the gallery walls. Sketches in cellophane protectors laid about on tables.
“Getting the paintings in the space, we realized, wow, this guy had a complicated and large body of work,” Freeman said.
“Now look at this amazing show,” said HCOA director Gail Edgerly. “It was a beautiful synergy that happened.”
In Homer art circles, Quinlan was an enigma. He had only one Homer show, in 1990 at the Great Company Gallery — now Bunnell Street Arts Center. Quinlan also had a one-man show in 1989 at the Burberry Gallery in Lexington, Mass.
Born March 30, 1937, in Syracuse, N.Y., Quinlan worked at the Syracuse Herald Journal in the early 1960s and studied at Syracuse University of Fine Arts. He moved with his former wife Frances to Homer in 1969 with their first three children, John, Westly and Alysia. Daughter Jessie was born here in 1973. The Quinlans had a cabin at the head of Kachemak Bay where they lived a subsistence lifestyle.
“He became the greatest backpacker of modern times,” Smith said. “He was just legendary up there among those who lived at the head of the bay.”
After he separated from Frances in 1976, Quinlan’s output increased. Alysia Quinlan said her father would spend years working on a single painting.
“He was one of those artists who worked on a painting and worked on it, then worked on it again,” she said.
A quote by Quinlan at the HCOA show describes his artistic philosophy: “It’s only paint and a white surface. You can’t do anything with it that will save you. But if you don’t try to somehow open the door and bring Magic in, and you can with a painting, you’re dead while you’re still alive.”
Freeman called Quinlan an outside artist, someone who was completely independent.
“It was noncommercial work. It was painting for himself and not for shows,” she said. “Quinlan is individual in his work as he was in his life. In those ways there’s a great deal of integrity.”
Except for a few paintings, most of Quinlan’s work does not show Alaska themes or settings.
“To me he’s truly a magic surrealist,” Freeman said. “We definitely don’t see a lot of magic surrealism in Alaska.”
Sometimes dark, often colorful and frequently luminous, Quinlan’s paintings feel like stories. In one work, a Christ-figure stands behind a boy giving a flower to a girl. In the background a dark storm cloud looms over a building. A man with a sack walks up to the building. In another corner is a flowering tree in front of a low wall. The paintings invite study and meditation.
“To me he is telling a story in the images,” Freeman said. “They were true and visceral and emotional stories about the love for his lifestyle.”
Christ and Madonna figures pop up often in Quinlan’s work, as do images of Adam and Eve or lovers.
“The thing that’s beautiful about the paintings is they bring together folk tales, religious stories and personal stories,” Freeman said. “It is an independent relationship to the divine ... an independent relationship to God and nature. That’s inherently brave.”
With Quinlan’s show going up as he passed into death, the mood at the opening felt like a wake: part celebration of life, part acceptance of a loved one’s departure. A sign at the show read “Off we go.”
Coming from a family of artists herself, Freeman said she sees another effect of Quinlan’s show: it endows a creative estate to his children who also have some of his gifts.
“I just think when it comes back into their hands, its importance is more magnified,” she said. “The artistic legacy is more deeply felt than before.”
A memorial service was held June 14, 2011, at Hickerson Memorial Cemetery on Diamond Ridge, where Quinlan was buried next to his daughter Jessie, who preceded him in death. His show remains on exhibit at the arts council through June 28.