Juneau fisherman looks for peace, memories in his work

Posted: Monday, June 23, 2003

When the countdown began, 10 seconds from the start of the 1st Annual Quick Draw Saturday afternoon at Centennial Hall, Juneau artist Mark Vinsel studied his photograph and steadied himself.

"I was shaking a little bit," said Vinsel, 46, a four-times-a-week fisherman and the office manger for United Alaska Fishermen. "I had a cup of coffee this morning and no breakfast. The other reason was, I was just a little nervous doing something like this."

Vinsel and 11 other Southeast artists had one hour to create an original work of art. A crowd was hovering around for the 20th anniversary celebration of Centennial Hall. The paintings were auctioned off later that afternoon. The artists received half the profit. The Juneau Arts and Humanities Council and Discovery Southeast split the rest.

Vinsel's partner, Juneau artist Dianne Anderson, was attempting a pastel recreation of Mendenhall Glacier and sat to his right. He was using watercolors to recreate a view of Juneau - a snapshot of downtown from Blueberry Hill.

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"I look for pictures or settings that make me feel good or either bring me some inner peace or a fond memory of being in the place," said Vinsel, who's painted since 1975. "I painted this (photograph) before, so I could pace myself, and I sort of knew what I wanted."

His challenge was his medium. Watercolors must dry, or they will run. He had the thickest paper he could buy, Arches 400 pound per ream. He had some paper towels to dab and dry stray puddles. And he brought a hair dryer. It could blow dry a layer in 45 seconds.

"I've done a lot of paintings in less than an hour but not when it's damp and takes a while to dry," Vinsel said.

Saturday was the summer solstice. Three years ago to the day, Vinsel moved to Juneau from Oakland, Calif. He lived in the Bay Area for 22 years and worked as an industrial designer and a facilities manager for Macintosh networking companies.

Vinsel was at the forefront of artistic content creation when the World Wide Web became popular in late 1994. He was one of the first individual artists to have a Website linked by Mosaic, one of the first search engines. Vinsel also helped other East Bay artists start sites.

"I saw instantly that the Web was a great way to combine my writings and my paintings and be able to reach people," Vinsel said. "I don't think it's a great medium for selling art, but it's a great way to market it and just let people see your work."

In the city, Vinsel studied Chinese ink painting with Tseng-Ta-Yu, a painter, poet and musician in San Francisco. Vinsel was the artist-in-residence at Kala Art Institute in Berkeley in 1998.

Away from the city, Vinsel had plenty of space to hike, fish and paint. The high Sierra Mountains were close. He escaped almost every weekend, driving four or five hours each way.

But when Vinsel moved to the Bay Area in 1978 to attend San Francisco State University, he never intended to stay in the city for more than 20 years. He grew up in an artistic family in rural New Hampshire, amid ice and snow and lakes. He was eager to leave the dot-com rat race.

Vinsel had developed an e-mail correspondence with Juneau artist John Stoll, who was managing the old Portfolio Arts Gallery. They shared an interest in art and the same type of flyfishing rod.

Stoll introduced Vinsel to Dianne Anderson. When Vinsel visited Juneau in 2000, he and Anderson decided to start a relationship. Now they live in North Douglas on 1 1/2 acres of land with two geese and four ducks.

"It's a very romantic story," Anderson said. "I draw, he paints, and it just brings us together really close. We both kind of get nourishment from visuals in the landscape."

You could see it when the Quick Draw started at 12:30 Saturday. Vinsel began sketching in pencil: first the trees in the forefront, then the outline of Mount Roberts and Mount Juneau, finally the city below. He's sketched the ridges so many times; he only looked at the photo twice. He needed just six minutes to finish the outline.

"The act of painting and the observation that you do makes the memory so solid, you can basically create it in your head just like you were just there," Vinsel said.

Vinsel paints from a round palette - small enough to fit in a fly fishing vest or a side bag with three tubes of paint, five brushes and paper. It's his portable system for capturing landscapes when he's hiking or sportfishing.

He uses the three primary colors - red, yellow and blue. He mixes in between the areas and knows to balance color if he finds himself working on one side of the plate.

Vinsel's watercolor started with yellows Saturday. He worked on the foreground trees, tinkered with the outlines of the mountains, added buildings to the city and gave the water a broad background wash. Finally he added light yellow to the sky, above the peaks, and gave the painting its first hint of depth.

"I remember especially with Mr. Tseng-Ta-Yu, he would look at a piece of art and point out something that he felt was not in the right place or not in harmony with the composition," Vinsel said. "It took me at least 10 years to get to where I understood that."

By 12:46, Vinsel had used the hair dryer once and moved on to red. Harsh diagonal strokes gave the mountain its power. The combination of yellows and reds in the sky put the scene on fire, like some spectacular sunrise. The work became a logic puzzle of sorts. At 12:56, Vinsel spread green through the hillside and Mount Juneau and Roberts awoke.

At 1 p.m. - the halfway point of the Quick Draw - Vinsel moved to blue. He applied the second of three washes to Gastineau Channel. He stuck a cruise ship near the downtown library. He added shadow to his foreground trees.

"These trees help," Vinsel said. "They sort of put you back on dry land. They frame the corners and give you a place to sit."

Those trees posed a small problem at the end. The branches were wet and appeared to be in danger of bleeding into the channel. Vinsel dabbed and maintained the definition and the painting sold to Rick and Robyn Sottile, cruise-ship tourists from Los Angeles.

"I bought it because it was striking," Rick Sottile said. "It was very representative, and it gave me a good feel for Juneau."

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

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