Fairbanks artist shares his vision of Alaska

Posted: Thursday, April 13, 2006

For 60 hours June 6-8, 1912, the Novarupta volcano at Katmai National Park and Preserve, just southeast of Dillingham, exploded in the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century.

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Almost 35 cubic kilometers of ash and lava was flung into the air. Kodiak was buried in soot. A few years later, when Robert Griggs led an expedition into the area to chart what had happened, the area was still so hot they dubbed it "The Valley of 10,000 Smokes."

Fairbanks landscape painter James Orvik got a first-hand tour of the area more than 90 years later, when the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks invited him on a field trip to Katmai as a guest artist. His paintings, from photographs, are part of "MyAlaska," his new solo exhibition at the Alaska State Museum. The show opened April 7, and runs through May 6.

"The place is just spectacular," Orvik said. "It's just total volcanic rubble through this area. The amount of ash that was deposited was just incredible. The valley was filled to the depths of hundreds and hundreds of feet.

"The erosion patterns are fascinating to me as a painter. It looks like the Badlands, just from the glacial melt going through there and scouring things out and cutting these big gorges. It just makes this gorgeous pattern."

Orvik has lived in Fairbanks for 37 years and was a psychology professor at the University of Fairbanks for more than 20. Although he's been interested in art for his entire life, he didn't begin drawing and painting until he retired in 1988. His first medium was the political cartoon - he wrote for the Fairbanks-based All-Alaska Weekly from 1990 to 1991.

"It's interesting," he said. "The issues in those cartoons 15 years ago, you could just put right back up. They're still talking about those issues today."

He dabbled in experimental painting but soon found himself drawn to landscapes. One room of "MyAlaska" includes Fairbanks scenes: Hurricane Gulch, birches on the UAF campus, scenes from the Tanana River, shots from Orvik's backyard.

"Everything just got me to the point where landscapes started to fascinate me," he said. "People live their lives and never really see what's around them. The environment, and just wanting to represent it, is in everybody's blood, they just don't know it. As a real consistent subject matter you're never going to be at a loss for something to paint."

For his canvas, Orvik uses polyfiber, a super-smooth aircraft fabric.

"I really like the surface," he said. "It's a real silky smoothness, and so it really suits my need for a real sharp, well-defined hard edge on things. I don't have to use a lot of paint to make things stick and stand out. It suits more of a drawing style than anything."

Orvik and his traveling party hiked for miles through the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. The pumice and ash was like walking on sand. They walked to the top of 6,000-foot Baked Mountain and to the base of the vast crater lake created by the eruption of Novarupta.

"You can't believe what an incredible experience it is when you round up over the snowfield and see this lake," Orvik said. "It's just spectacular."

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