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Fred Machetanz is known today as one of Alaska's greatest painters, but in the early 1960s he and his wife, Sara, were struggling to get by.
They traveled around the state in the summer, taking photographs and making films. In the winter, they'd tour the Lower 48 on slide-show and lecture tours about the state. Meanwhile, they lived in a small cabin in Palmer with their infant son, Traeger.
Machetanz' motivation was waning, and he only had time to create three or four paintings a year, said Kesler Woodward, the curator of "A Northern Adventure: The Art of Fred Machetanz," now showing at the Alaska State Museum. There was something about those works that caught the eye of a group of prominent Anchorage businessmen, who offered to support him for a year if he concentrated on his art. They arranged a show for April of 1962 at the Anchorage Westward Hotel.
Machetanz borrowed money from his sister to expand his house and create room for a studio. In the course of a year, he cranked out 44 new paintings for the Anchorage show. As the date approached, Woodward said, Machetanz was so nervous that he broke out in hives and had to be hospitalized. But his friends promoted the show tirelessly. More than 3,000 people attended in three days, and he sold half the paintings.
"Suddenly, he was a household name in Alaska and successful," Woodward said. "When he was asked years later how that exhibit changed his life, he said they had to pay income tax for the first time. They had never made enough money before."
Machetanz died on Oct. 6, 2002, at the age of 94.
A grand opening reception for "A Northern Adventure," sponsored by the William S. Morris III family, will be held from 4-7 p.m. Friday, May 6, during the First Friday art walk. The Morris Corp. owns the Juneau Empire. Woodward will lead a walk-through gallery discussion at 5:30 p.m. The show will run through Sept. 24.
Woodward, a well-known Alaska painter, was a curator at the Alaska State Museum from 1977 to 1978 and 1979 to 1981. He taught for two decades at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, retiring in the spring of 2000. He was invited by the Anchorage Museum of History and Art to curate the Machetanz exhibit after organizing a Sydney Laurence show in 1990 and a Eustace Ziegler show in 1998
"Machetanz was the next obvious one to do, since he's such a beloved figure in Alaska art," Woodward said. "He was of a very different generation than Sydney Laurence and Eustace Ziegler and he had kind of a different take on Alaska from what they did. He said early on that what he wanted to do for Alaska was what Fred Remington did for the American West."
"It was very meaningful for me," Traeger said of the show. "I got to see some people that I hadn't seen for awhile, and I saw some things that I hadn't seen for years, some I had never even seen before. Kesler did a tremendous job of researching things I didn't know, so I got to learn some anecdotes about my dad that I very much enjoyed."
The exhibit opened in 2004 at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, where it included 92 paintings, illustrations from his artist publications, excerpts from the film footage he and his wife, Sara, produced, a replica of Machetanz' studio and a collection of the artifacts he used as models in his work.
Machetanz grew up in Ohio, and in 1925, was preparing to head off to Ohio State University. At the time, Maxfield Parrish was the most famous artist in America. It was estimated that one in every four middle-class American homes had a Parrish illustration, Woodward said. Machetanz, too, admired the work of Parrish and the famous illustrators of the day. He decided to take his jalopy and drive to Parrish's house in Cornish, N.H.
"He arrived in the middle of the night and he couldn't really see," Woodward said. "He parked as best as he could, turned off the lights and went to sleep in his car. He woke up the next morning in the middle of Parrish's beautifully manicured lawn."
Parrish took him in, and was happy to share his painting secrets. Woodward learned Parrish's technique of glazed painting, adapted from the Renaissance masters. Parrish used underpainting, layering and oil glazed on top of the layering to achieve a luminescence. He also worked from photographs and models.
"(Fred) really took all that to heart and adopted a number of his techniques and a number of his attitudes," Woodward said. "He remained in touch with Parrish for the rest of Parrish's life."
Machetanz went to Alaska for the first time in 1935, to visit his uncle, Charles Traeger, in Unalakleet. He had just completed his master's degree in art at Ohio State University and planned to stay for six weeks. Traeger came to Alaska during the Gold Rush, first settling in St. Michael in the 1890s. Like most, he didn't find much gold. But he did make a good living selling supplies to other pioneers. By the time Machetanz arrived in 1935, Traeger was well established in the state and had a highly successful trading post in Unalakleet.
"His first encounter with Alaska was getting to know the Native people in Arctic Alaska - the Eskimo people who were living well on the land and who found the land to be a friendly and welcoming place, teeming with wildlife," Woodward said. "For him, Alaska wasn't a place that you had to pit yourself against, so much as a place of beauty and magic in both its landscape and its people."
Machetanz stayed for two years, then went to New York, where he hoped to illustrate books on Alaska. Publishers told him he would have to write his own books on the state. None were in the works. He wrote his first, "Panuck, Eskimo Sled Dog," in 1939, and followed it with "On Arctic Ice" in 1940.
During World War II, he served in the Aleutians with the Navy as a lieutenant commander in charge of intelligence for the North Pacific Command. After another stint in New York, he returned to Unalakleet in 1946. There, Machetanz met Sara Dunn, a writer from RCA Victor. They married in 1947, and wrote books, produced films and lectured on Alaska for the rest of their lives. They built their log cabin in Palmer in 1951 and their only son, Traeger, was born in 1959.
Machetanz is known for his scenes of arctic landscapes, Eskimo culture and sled dogs. His paintings are submerged in a cold, blue hue, because of his use of ultramarine as an underpainting. Most of his work is done on hardboard.
The glazed painting style took time, as each layer needed to dry. Through his career, he experimented with drying racks, furnaces and a specially designed sauna that dried the paint with infrared lights. It would usually take him a month or longer to complete a painting.
"I don't think he was so much didactic in terms of showing how things were done, but he took great care to make sure that when he depicted an Athabascan woman with a birch bark baby-carrier, that he got the baby carrier right," Woodward said. "He even went so far as to commission a birch-bark baby carrier to use as a model."
Machetanz was named "Alaskan of the Year" in 1977 and was awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Alaska and Ohio State University. He suffered from Parkinson's disease late in his life, but he continued to paint well into his 80s.
"He'd get up and work and be in his room from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. until 5 p.m. every day during the weekdays," Traeger said. "He really was a perfectionist. He would repaint each thing he didn't like, take them down and look at them and have Mom come in and look at them. He loved what he did and he loved doing it well."