Dan Fruits paints his landscapes in the same way that they are intended to be appreciated: on a gut level.
He takes in images - of Lynn Canal, the Chilkats, a grouping of trees on Randall Road, where he lives with his wife, Karen Crane - and reinterprets them in paint, giving back to the viewer something that is and is not what he has seen, images that are only loosely representative of their physical counterparts.
"I start with something but then I start messing with it to the point where it's not very much a representation," he said.
Fruits, one of three solo artists currently being featured at the Alaska State Museum, said the landscape acts as a trigger for his artistic process; after the initial idea, the original image becomes less important to him.
Similar to the abstract expressionists that were his first love in the late 1950s - Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock - he is guided by instinct and by the process itself, rather than by geographical considerations or technical issues such as the proper angle of a shadow.
He points to a painting in the corner of the museum gallery of an island, and describes how the island began in the center of the canvas, then gradually moved to left as he worked, ending up at the far edge of the painting. Though he was the one holding the brush, he said, the change happened almost without his decision. Being responsive to this process of discovery, and embracing looseness and openness in his explorations, he said, is part of the reason he is a painter.
"I like the element of chance; it's incredibly important to me," he said. "I like the invention and the discovery, that I'm free enough to let things happen."
Though he has great affection for more abstract artists, such as Clyfford Still, his forays into abstraction have not been successful, he said.
"I've never been able to do abstract pictures," he said. "Mine come out looking like a tablecloth."
As Fruits' paintings are fueled by an appreciation for his natural environment, so the artistic process serves to connect him back to the world.
"When I'm painting, I see so much more," he said. "People look great to me, ugly old crones are gorgeous to me. I like that state of being; that's probably why people do drugs. And it lasts as long as you're painting well."
Fruits spent years teaching all over the state with the Artists in Schools program in the 1970s and 1980s, spending time in Cordova, Craig, Chevak, Russian Mission, Bethel and other towns. At the time, he focused primarily on printmaking. (He was inspired to come north for the first time in part because of the Cape Dorset prints that were first produced in the late 1950s in Nunavut, Canada.) Printmaking was easier to teach than painting, he said, as the concrete tasks involved in the process are much easier to demonstrate than strokes with a paintbrush.
But all those years of performing his art for others took a toll. He "lost his feel" for printmaking after teaching it, and has concentrated since the late '80s on his painting - in oil, mostly, but also in watercolor and acrylic. He also makes monoprints - one of them, one in a series based on the 1918 sinking of the Princess Sophia in Lynn Canal, is on display at this show. Monoprints are made in a process not unlike a woodcut: a plexiglass sheet is inked and then paper is applied to receive the image. Fruits often adds paint to the image after the inking process. He said he had five monoprints in the wings for this show - as well as ten large pieces -- but that the works weren't ready for display by show time. One of the large pieces, of Lynn Canal, made it in.
Other works in the show include an oil painting of the old (pre-fire) Holy Trinity Church on Gold Street ("the ghost of a church"), a painting of the house he grew up in in Indiana, one still life, and four paintings of Alaska villages, inspired by historic images from the 1950s.
"I like the geometry of the buildings, is mainly why I like them, and I have an affection for that part of the world," Fruits said of the group.
Other than short stays in Indiana and Florida, Fruits has made Alaska his home since his teaching days; nearly all of the paintings in his current show feature the Alaska landscape.
"I am big believer in (the idea that) you work where you are and I'm in one of the great places visually," he said.
Most of the works are new, though a few, such as the monotype, date back to the mid-1990s.
"It's a tiny retrospective - it only goes back as far as 1996 - but it does cover my Juneau period pretty well," he said.
Fruits will give a talk on his new work this Saturday at 2 p.m. at the musuem.