Three local artists among this year's Rasmuson grant recipients

Posted: Thursday, June 10, 2010

"Grant" is a small, rather dull word, but for the three local Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Grant recipients, it will soon translate into stimulating new creative spaces, in the form of studios for two of the three artists, and fresh vistas for the third.

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Courtesy Of Jim Fowler
Courtesy Of Jim Fowler

For all three local artists, Jim Fowler, Jeremy Kane and Phoebe Rohrbacher, as well as for the other 26 Alaska recipients, the grants will also facilitate the creation of finished artwork; in that way the Rasmuson Foundation enriches not just a small group it honors every year, but their communities and the artistic wealth of the state as a whole.

This year's Individual Artist Grants, one of the Rasmuson Foundation's many grant programs, awarded more than $175,000 to artists around the state. Announced last month, this year's grants consist of one distinguished artist award of $25,000, 20 project awards of up to $5,000, and eight fellowship awards of $12,000.

Interior artist John Luther Adams won this year's Distinguished Artist Award, an honor that recognizes artists with a history of creative excellence and accomplishment in the arts. Adams, a musician who has lived in Alaska since 1978, is the seventh Alaskan artist to receive this award.

"John's work is exceptional, riveting and captures the essence of Alaska in a unique and expressive way," said Diane Kaplan, Rasmuson Foundation president and CEO in a press release.

Project Award winners in addition to Rohrbacher are Karen Benning, Jason Parizo, Peter Porco, Jimmy Riordan, Robin Lovelace-Smith, Tom Sexton, Ricky Vang and Harold Wallin, all from Anchorage; Christopher Ho, from Bethel; Brookelyn Bellinger from Delta Junction; Robin Dale Ford, Jessie Hedden, Etsuko Kimura Pederson and Brian Schneider from Fairbanks; Lani Hotch from Haines; Miranda Weiss from Homer; Arthur Fisak from Manley Hot Springs; Arlo Hannigan from Nome; and Wendy Smith-Wood from Sutton.

In addition to Folwer and Kane, Fellowship Awards were given to John Damberg, Hal Gage, Carl Johnson, Diane Melms and Gretchen Saganl, all from Anchorage; and Charles Mason from Fairbanks.

JIm Fowler

Southeast Alaska can be a tough place for plein air painters, but Jim Fowler embraces the challenge. In the summers he's out there three to five times a week - whether the intense June sun is baking the paint onto his brush or the sideways August rain is trying to wash his canvas clean - with the goal of producing a painting a day.

"For me its good motivation, no matter how I feel - cold or wet or tired or whatever - there's no excuses," he said.

Fowler, who has devoted himself full-time to painting since the mid-90s, no longer forces himself to go out regularly in the winters, he said, choosing to use that time to refine the work he did over the year, without trying to change it too much.

"I'll pin canvases to the wall (in my studio)," he said. "I like to just walk in and look at them and not necessarily stop and study them, but after awhile something clicks."

Fowler paints mostly Alaskan and Canadian landscapes. Like early influences Charles Russell and Frederick Remington, who captured the quickly changing face of the American West, Fowler records wilderness areas of the North, from Fish Creek in Douglas to the Mackenzie River Delta in the Yukon.

"I feel like the North is so fragile, all the wild places, its amazing how fast they can change," he said. "So I'm drawn to absorbing as much of that as I can."

Fowler said he will use his Fellowship Award from the Rasmuson Foundation to do more of what he's already doing: Travel around locally and up North, to places he's been and those he's wished to go, painting as he goes.

"During the summers I like to travel up North a bit and usually try to paint as much as possible, so I'm going to take longer trips and probably go to some different places, and visit some galleries around the state,... to increase my representation.

Fowler has lived in Juneau since 1973, and, previously worked as a graphic artist for the state. In addition to being a painter, he is a well-known children's' book illustrator who has worked on over a dozen titles, including Jean Rogers' "The Secret Moose," "Benny's Flag," and the Christopher Award winning "I'll See You When the Moon is Full," written by his wife, Susi Gregg Fowler.

Jim Fowler said he enjoys working on book illustrations, but as the process is very labor-intensive and studio-oriented, he likes to balance that work with painting outside.

He said he remains pretty faithful to the lay of the land as he paints, paying particular attention to the light.

"As far as the quality of light, I try to be pretty faithful to what's there. I can maybe move some elements around slightly, not too much. What I like I like the idea that (the paintings) are somewhat autobiographical, because that is what I was doing, where I was at that point."

Fowler said he has a few favorite spots locally, such as Peterson Lake, and also loves the open country of the Northwest Territories.

"It took me a long time to feel I had a grasp of painting in open tundra up North," he said. "Here the mountains are kind of softened by the trees, but there it's just bare. When the sun moves, the shadows change dramatically."

Fowler previously worked at an after-school program through Gastineau Elementary School, and currently is enjoying sharing his love of art with his grandchildren, ages 6 and 4. His older grandson, Callahan, spends a good deal of time drawing, and Fowler sometimes brings him along on plein art excursions.

"I think everybody can do art," he said. "If as a society we placed the same emphasis on art as we did on reading or math, everybody would do art. Everybody wouldn't do it at the same level, but you don't expect that of any other study.

"The worst thing is to have somebody tell you you can't do it. Or to tell yourself you can't do it. (Painting or drawing) is just a form of communication. It's a shame to limit ourselves."

Jeremy Kane

If you walked into a gallery anywhere in the country where 50 ceramists were displaying their art, you'd probably be able to pick out Jeremy Kane's work without much trouble. Kane pairs his classic porcelain forms with imagery from popular culture, applied to the pots as decals; the resulting art is unique and completely unexpected.

"I thought it would be kind of fun to basically make the most expensive porcelain, really fine work that looks like it'd be in some museum, or in somebody's house that's really wealthy, and then bring it down in mundane and controversial dated images and things like that."

Kane's work creates both thematic and aesthetic tension: Between tradition and experimentation, high-art and popular culture, sophistication and tackiness, value and kitsch, challenging viewers expectations and pushing established boundaries. In a similar way, the timelessness of the classic forms he favors is offset by the nostalgic, dated feeling of the decals, which are reminiscent of designs found on diner mugs or Burger King glasses, the stickers on instrument cases and tattoos. Hot-rod flames are a particular favorite.

"My work is more about culture and life and aesthetics than it is about pottery, or than it is even about classical forms, even though I do reference a lot of classical forms in ceramics."

Kane, a professor of ceramics at University of Alaska Southeast, will use his Fellowship Award from the Rasmuson Foundation to build a studio on his property in Auke Bay.

"At some point in time, you can't be a successful artist if you don't have a domain you can call your own," he said. "And also I think it's a great teaching tool."

Kane said when he was in graduate school he benefited from spending time with his professors on their own turf, outside of the classroom, and hopes to provide that same creative atmosphere for his students. At UAS he spends a lot of time showing his students the "greatest hits" of ceramics, something he enjoys, but also wants to share with them the work he considers to be his art form.

"Most of my students have seen my finished work. They know what I do. I can do anything, but this is what I do the best, this is where my love is, in this work right here. When I teach them how to make things, I have a love of pottery, too, but its not what I exhibit or what I think is my artwork."

Kane said he's always been interested in creative pursuits and remembers making pots as a kid growing up in Ohio. In high school he became very intersted in music, both as a musician and a fan, and traveled around the country to see as many live shows as he could. He said he feels that experience on American highways and later in his bluegrass bands, Clark County in Fairbanks and The Great Alaskan Bluegrass Band in Juneau, fueled his interest in the imagery that later found voice in his art; many of his designs call to mind '70s truck stops and honky-tonk barrooms.

"It's a little cynical about some of that stuff too, the chrome and the American flags -- I love that stuff. So its partially cynical and it's also from the heart."

Kane attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks and then received his masters in fine arts from Ohio University in 2003. The next year he was Taunt Fellow at the internationally recognized Archie Bray Foundation for the ceramic arts in Montana.

He has been teaching at UAS since 2004, and was recently part of the push to add a bachelor of arts program at the university, an effort spearheaded by art professor Jane Terzis and former professor Alice Tersteeg. The program, including the ceramics department, has been so successful that Kane said they are exhausting their resources. Pedar Dalthorp was recently hired, bringing the art department back up to three members.

"We need more space and we need a couple more faculty members in order to keep building the program," Kane said. "It just keeps getting busier and busier and I don't see it really going away.

For him that means that his classes are full of degree-seeking students, a change from the more eclectic, community-oriented classes of the past.

"All my classes fill with degree-seeking students," he said. "And that's the goal of a college, really. It's not to put other people in the community out, but we've built enough awareness and people know we're serious about what we're doing out here, and I think they should be pretty stoked for the kids that in a small town are getting a good education."

Phoebe Rohrbacher

For Phoebe Gonzales Rohrbacher, a new studio space means more than just getting her living room back. It also means room to try bigger canvases, more flexibility with using oil paint, opportunities for using models for her figurative drawings, and defined parameters for pursuing her art in a more deliberate way. She hopes to spend a couple hours a day in her new space in the Simpson Building, especially in the coming months as she prepares for a show at the Juneau Douglas City Museum in February 2011.

"For my last show (at the Ruby Room), I worked in a lot of watercolor," she said. "It was a lot of really small pieces. For this next show, I'm considering doing some oils, especially since I'll have a bigger space to work in."

The new studio has been made possible through her Project Grant from the Rasmuson Foundation.

Though its tempting to refer to Rohrbacher, 24, as an emerging Alaskan artist, she's been serious about her art for a long time. She had her first show in Juneau while still in high school, at former downtown gallery Rock Paper Scissors, before going on to study painting more formally at Seattle University. Her familiarity with creative practices stretches back even further, into childhood: Her father, Charles Rohrbacher, is an internationally respected iconographer, and spent a considerable amount of time with his kids as they were growing up.

"He's the one who stayed home with (me and my brother), while my mom worked for the state, so we would hang out with him during the day and spend a lot of time with him in his studio," she said. "He'd set us up with our own projects so he could paint too."

Though she said its still slightly nerve-racking to anticipate his reaction to her paintings, as she really looks up to him, she has learned to relax and do her own thing.

"I think he's definitely an influence..., But he and I also have very different taste in what we like to do and also what we like to look at."

For one thing, Phoebe Rohrbacher favors oils.

"I use oils, to my fathers dismay," she said. "I like the way they feel and that they don't dry so quick."

She started out using acrylics, as oils were not an option in Seattle University's small art program, but during a study abroad program to Italy she became hooked on oils.

"It was just a wonderful program, and I got to use oil paint there. Then I really started liking it a lot."

As far as subjects, Rohrbacher said she finds herself drawn to people, and has in the past focused on family or friends as her subjects. Her show at the Ruby Room included detailed studies of family photographs, exploring her Latina heritage on her mother's side. Some of the paintings were displayed in metal frames reminiscent of traditional Mexican punched-tin styles.

Rohrbacher also enjoys painting nudes, but said she has no plans to combine her family studies with this interest.

"It's a lot harder to get people you know to sit for you nude," she said. "And I don't know if I would want my family to come sit for me nude. I I guess I would want there to be a reason for them to be nude in the picture."

She works as a nude model herself on occasion for the Canvas, an activity she said often sparks creative energy.

"It's a good time to sit and think about what I want to make," she said. "It always makes me want to draw."

Rohrbacher said she loves the work of the Bay Area Figurative Movement painters who were active in the 50s and 60s, and of expressionist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker.

"I really like her work a lot because she's painting people, but at the same time she's not trying to make them look photo realistic at all," she said. "Its a lot more about colors and feelings."

For the city museum show, she has not yet settled on an overarching theme, and said she doesn't want to limit herself too early.

"I'm still not completely set on what I'm going to do for the show in February, but I do think it will involve figures," she said.

Rohrbacher, who juggles her time between her art and her job as at REACH as a direct service provider plans to get set up in her new space later this month.

"Its pretty small but it will be better than my living room," she said.

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