A block of wood and a world of their own

Artist maintains a subsistence lifestyle with his wife in Pelican

Posted: Thursday, April 08, 2004

From their cliff-top homestead, four miles northwest of Pelican along the Lisianski Inlet, Eric and Pam Bealer can see 40 miles north, past Glacier Bay to the end of the St. Elias Range.

"We're real lucky," Eric said. "Pelican sits back in and they look straight across at the mountains."

With the view out the window, Eric, 43, a wood carver, has no trouble finding inspiration for his art. He sketches the environment he lives in and sees. And judging by his work - landscape and wildlife prints, elaborate R.Crumb-like cartoons, programs for Pelican's Boardwalk Boogie and the last two posters for the Alaska Folk Festival - he has quite the depth of perception.

"When you look in the background of his work, the bushes are faces and all sorts of things are happening," said Juneau veterinarian Nene Wolfe, a friend of the Bealers for seven years. "And when you're with him in the woods, around his place, he sees all the details and the curves and the shapes and the patterns in nature. It's just phenomenal what he's able to do."

"I've seen some of his stuff, from the very beginning where he will hike up a mountain and take a photograph, to the very end, where he comes up with a print," Pelican Postmaster Terri Schomer said. "It's just amazing."

Eric carved last year's poster on scratchboard in two weeks. It depicts a man mushing down a hill, between trees, on the back of a giant fiddle. This year's poster took him two weeks to carve on a 9-by-12-inch block of ingrained maple. The tree is based on a vegas spruce in his yard. The man and the woman are composites of he and his wife. The swing set is very similar to the swing (made by Pam's grandfather years ago in Vermont) which hangs from the spruce.

"I don't have any trouble with ideas; I look out my window," Eric said. "It just takes time to cut them on my block."

"He won't do a picture of an animal unless he's seen it, or he will do something that's like somewhere he's been," Pam said. "He's got boxes of sketches and photographs and just different ideas, and he just puts it together into something that flows. He has more ideas than he knows what to do with."

The Bealers' kind of solitude is hard work. They have a flat piece of land between two trees where they built a small two-story house with a chimney. Nearby is a barn they've raised and a little mill. They're almost entirely self-sufficient. They have dogs for companionship, a horse to pull logs, sheep for wool and meat, chickens for eggs and dinner, a barn, a root cellar and a garden full of potatoes and carrots.

There's no nearby grocery. They boat into Pelican once or twice a week on their 17-foot skiff to buy staples and check the mail. The barge floats into town every so often and brings them hay and supplies they can't find in town.

They don't have a televison, a computer, a car or a refrigerator, but they run their lights and power a little boombox for music with two solar panels. They use firewood for heat. They don't have a proper telephone, but they have a radio phone they turn on for two hours on Saturday - if it works. They hunt and fish for food, and they're going to start building a sailboat this year so they don't have to rely on fuel for their boat.

"We don't get bored, that's for sure," Pam said. "Even in the winter, we don't get cabin fever. There's always something to do."

"His chimney has stones intertwined up into the ceiling," Wolfe said. "It's very sort of New Englandy, but artistic with little pieces of wood that he's found and arched and carved and fit in. You see his art and you see his house, and it's like A-ha! Lots of attention to little details."

Eric usually travels to Juneau once a year, but has not left Pelican in a year and a half. This month, he will visit Juneau for the 30th Alaska Folk Festival, April 12-18 at Centennial Hall. Pam will stay behind to watch the animals. Eric hasn't been to the festival before. He will also be at Annie Kaill's from 4:30-7 p.m. Friday, April 16, and noon-4 p.m. Saturday, April 17.

"The folk festival is something that I know I'll like," Eric said. "I love the Boardwalk Boogie. I'm really looking forward to seeing all the musicians, all the other artists."

Eric was born in Pennsylvania and lived for years in Vermont. He calls himself a leftover from the Mother Earth movement of the early 1970s, when the price of gasoline soared and some people began turning back to the land for alternative sources of food and energy.

"I didn't stop; I kept doing it," Eric said. "I wanted to get away from everything. Back East, I used to draw farms and pretend the people weren't there and just draw landscapes. It's come to where I don't have to do that. I'm okay with what I have right here. We could go for a day and not see a single boat go by. And if one airplane comes by, you say, 'All right, we got mail for the week.'"

Eric and Pam began living together 15 years ago and married two years later. In Vermont, they had a homestead and Eric worked with metal etchings. But when they moved to Haines in the early 1990s, he switched mediums.

"I said that I was going to live out in the woods and teach myself wood engraving, because I was tired of working with all the different acids and chemicals," he said. "I changed my whole life back to nature, changed my diet and everything, and it paid off. Now I'm doing what I want to do, and that's all I need to do to support myself."

The Bealers continued their subsistence lifestyle in Haines. Eric enjoyed snowshoeing to their home from the highway. But ultimately, they found the town (pop. 2,800) to be too large.

"It was getting too crowded," Eric said. "So we wanted to get away, far away, where there were no roads. And we found it."

"They had been looking all over for a place they wanted to be," said Schomer, a Pelican native and the town postmaster for the last 25 years. "Pelican's built up on pilings, the tide comes in and goes under the boardwalks. We have all those snow-covered mountains. They just fell in love with it, and they slowly built up their homestead. Anybody that loves Pelican, I like them right off. It's a beautiful place to be, but it's a hard place to live."

"They only come to town once or twice a week, so anybody that needs them can leave a message with me," she said. "They're good customers, just good people."

In their early years in Pelican, the Bealers would bring their horse to town and give kids a ride. Eric built a horse float, and they'd wake up at 3 in the morning to transport the horse in time for 10 a.m. parades.

"They did it for the first couple of years, but the horse was old and it wanted to stay home," Schomer said. "They're very community-minded. It's not easy to live here, and they enjoy it immensely. We're just lucky to have them."

Pam mats and frames all of the work and coordinates the logistics of galleries and sales. Eric's work used to be shown in galleries all over the state, but they've cut back to Southeast for the most part.

Karen Stepanenko runs Pelican's Lisianski Inlet Cafe with her husband, Victo. She sells Eric's art out of a little gift shop in the restaurant.

"People come every year and buy one of his prints, because they know they're going to be collector's items," Stepanenko said. "He's real special, and his art is a reflection of their lifestyle."

Eric Bealer does his own printing with his six-foot long 1939 Vandercook proofing hand-press. He belongs to a print club of wood engravers and the group members helped him find it in Spokane. It weighs about a ton. He brought it up the cliff to his house after it was barged to Pelican and ferried by skiff.

"All these old men that used to do this a long time ago got me one," he said. "They liked that somebody was still doing it the old way. I could print a whole sheet of newspaper if I wanted to."

Eric Bealer uses ingrained maple, which he considers the second-best option to Turkish boxwood. Boxwood is nearly extinct and can cost a couple hundred dollars for an 8-by-10-inch block.

When he works, he listens to music - bluegrass, celtic, whatever he can find.

"I usually work small," he said. "I do a square inch a day if I'm working all night. I work a little bit here and there. I'll cut some firewood and then I'll sit down and work for a couple of hours. I don't sit around watching television. I do cartoons or else I read something as a release."

This year's poster was carved on one of the biggest blocks he's ever used.

"For this year's folk fest, I kind of wanted to be cartoony," he said. "I wanted to design something from what I've heard about the festival. I wanted to do a mixture of all of the people and the music. And my religion is the art anyway. Most instruments are made of wood, woodwinds and guitars and everything. And the music comes from the mountains. I wanted to tie it all together. This is a big festival for all these people to come out of the woods. Guys up in the Yukon come down for this one."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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