KETCHIKAN — Jeanette Sweetman plucked myriad threads from the Ketchikan arts community as she grew up, weaving them with her natural talents to become the professional young artist she is today.
A photographer, painter, business woman and 2012 Ketchikan High School graduate, Sweetman has learned many lessons along the way.
“You can’t be shy,” she said.
She has reached out to the Ketchikan Arts and Humanities Council, teachers, seasoned professional artists, First City Players, local businesses and other mentors to learn the ropes, test her ideas and market her work.
She also has spoken to the Ketchikan School Board and the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly in support of funding for arts programs and adequate funding for school programs.
“It’s important for me to speak up,” she said.
Her portrait photography, for which she recently registered her first business license, has exploded in popularity, not just in Ketchikan, but in Sitka, Anchorage and other cities as well. Her senior portraiture, shot in black and white, uniquely capture each person’s personality, quirks and passions.
One memorable photo shoot she described involved a hike up Deer Mountain with her client, her camera, and some friends to help carry her client’s drum set. They were delighted to find a large flat rock to set the equipment on, and said the experience, and the resulting photos, were incredible.
Sweetman recently earned two scholarships. One, a $5,000 award from the Gillam Foundation, is a one-time award for first-year college students studying business-related areas who also have demonstrated entrepreneurial skill, among other qualifications.
Sweetman plans to attend the University of Alaska-Anchorage this fall to major in art and business.
The second scholarship she received was a $1,000 Young Entrepreneur Foundation award from the National Federation of Independent Business.
She said when she applied for that scholarship, she described her experience saving money for investment in new equipment, her marketing strategy and challenges she overcame, such as setting a price structure — even for friends — and the expansion of her business to other cities.
“I’m the only person in the state that got it,” she said of the award.
She said that her two years of participation in debate class and competitions at Kayhi definitely helped her when applying for scholarships and having to speak about her goals, her view of the arts in general and her business plans.
Sweetman said she didn’t show any special affinity for art as a young child, and mostly “made a lot of messes.”
She said she was involved from a young age in First City Players productions as an actor, makeup artist and set painter, and toyed with the idea of being an actor or makeup artist someday.
Her real blossoming as an artist, she said, started as a Kayhi freshman. She took photography 101 with teacher Peter Bolling, who she called “a fabulous teacher,” and started to learn darkroom techniques.
She expanded her skills in photography 102 with teacher Gerald Scarzella, who she said encouraged her to stretch her skills, such as hand tinting, pinhole and wide format photography.
That summer, her parents helped her build a darkroom in her house, and friend Wayne Kinnunen lent her an enlarger. Another family friend, and fellow photographer, Mike Gates, donated paper for her projects.
She was attending Sitka Fine Arts Camp that year when her parents sent her a care package. Alongside the “knock-off Lucky Charms” was a note telling her about the darkroom plans.
Sweetman said her parents, David and Marggie Sweetman, have been critical to her growth as an artist.
They let her do “whatever makes me happy,” she said. She recalled the octopus and other creatures they let her paint on their house walls, for instance.
She said she always will remember her first print she made in her own darkroom on the night of senior carnival — a photo she had taken of her friend Stasha Southmayd riding a bicycle.
She described the mixing of the chemicals, developing her own film and conducting her own experiments in tandem with her photography projects at school as a memorable creative period.
“It was really cool, and I was really excited about that,” she said.
She said she enjoys working in a surrealistic style best, and admires photographer Jerry Uelsmann’s work.
She said what she likes about manual film photography, in contrast to digital photography, is the scientific process, and how she has to plan each step and have a clear idea of how it will apply later.
“It’s a mental workout, but I really, really enjoy it,” she said.
Then she arrived at school on the day class sign-ups were scheduled, and she received disappointing news. The photography classes were canceled, the dark room shut down for good.
“It was traumatic for me,” she said, adding, “It was an extreme loss to our school and to Ketchikan.”
She described Kayhi’s darkroom as the best one in town, with plenty of supplies, space and great equipment.
Another important step in her path to becoming an art professional was attending Southeast Regional Art Festivals all four of her high school years.
“They have been some of the premier events in my art career so far,” she said.
She said that she first learned her second favorite art medium — painting — in her first year at Art Fest, held that year in Wrangell. She said she learned to stretch canvases, and developed a love for texture, layers and color.
One critical aspect of Art Fest that she said really helped her progress was that participants work about 10 hours every day during the event, giving a lot of opportunity to practice, and to finish complete projects.
She experimented more with painting in her sophomore year at Kayhi with teacher Louise Kern. She said she has sold several of her smaller paintings through local businesses.
When she considered starting a photographic portraiture business, she said she was very reluctant to step into the digital camera world, which she felt was necessary for that type of work. She said she had often been “disgusted” by digital photography that had been sloppily edited, and wasn’t excited about being a part of that medium.
She said she was mentored by Lindsey Bolling for several years in photography for proms, and worked with photographers Rhonda Bolling and Charlie Starr.
She emphasized the help and mentorship of many local artists, and said that she always has been surprised by how friendly and welcoming all of them have been.
She said they never have pushed her to become a professional, but eagerly invited her to be part of the arts community, which gave her great opportunities to have conversations about art with accomplished full-time artists.
Other artistic adventures Sweetman has tackled include textile dyeing, which she learned at Art Fest; creating, making and modeling costumes for the Wearable Art Show; and co-founding the first National Art Honor Society in Alaska, at Kayhi with fellow student Spring Moon.
At the most recent Art Honor Society event, six new members were inducted and a show of the students’ work was held. The group has decorated for dances, held art workshops for elementary students, and built props for proms.
Sweetman said the aim of the Art Honor Society not only is to expose younger students to art, and to encourage art projects for its members, but to help students plan for a professional art career.
The importance of art in society, Sweetman said, has many facets. She said the way that it can bind a community together through people attending theater events, venues such as the Monthly Grind, music performances and gallery shows is powerful.
She said arts can act as an equalizer, in a way, because any person can enjoy them. The arts can illuminate our local Native culture, our community’s culture and our wildlife.
“What’s not important about (the arts)?” she asked, grinning.
“I’m proud to be part of a community that has art as one of its defining factors,” she added.