Actor pays tribute to one of Alaska's great artists

One-man show takes Perseverance stage next week

Posted: Thursday, November 30, 2000

Sydney Laurence, one of the grand masters of Alaska painting, is coming back from the dead.

Laurence's colorful legacy as an artist, refugee, gold miner and frontier rebel comes to life next week in a oneman performance called "Syd." Anchorage actor Jerry Harper, who is playing Ephraim Cabot in Perseverance Theatre's current show, "Desire Under The Elms," portrays the famed Alaska artist. Harper will do shows at Perseverance Theatre at 7 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Harper moved to Anchorage as a boy in 1944, four years after Laurence died. He grew up with Laurence's work in his home.

"My stepfather moved to Anchorage in 1915," Harper said, "and Laurence used to order his paints through my stepfather's drug store. So he ended up with a number of Sidney Laurences he (Laurence) bartered them for paint. He bartered quite a bit with his paintings for cars and furniture."

Harper is the director of the Eccentric Theatre Company in Anchorage, and he owns and operates Cyrano's, a combination bookstore, coffee shop, cinema and theater.

He said the Sydney Laurence show started out as a documentary for public television called "Painters of the North." The show was written by a friend of Harper's named Eric Wallace. Wallace asked Harper to narrate the documentary, and he also did the voice of Laurence for the program.

"We were talking several years later and I suggested he do a oneman show on Sidney Laurence since he had all the material and had pretty much done all the work already," Harper said. "The idea appealed to him. In fact, he'd already been thinking about it."

Harper has performed the show in Anchorage, in England and at the Fringe Theater Festival in Scotland.

Wallace applied some speculation to blanks in the painter's life. Harper said while a documentary needs to stick to the facts, a theater piece has a little more latitude for imagination.

Aspects of Laurence's life have remained unknown, and he's become a romantic figure in the history of Alaska art. Art historian Keslar Woodward called Laurence Alaska's most widely known and beloved painter. Woodward credits Laurence as the visual equivalent of Robert Service; men who defined the image that many Alaskans and nonAlaskans have of the state, a land of spectacular wilderness and majesty that is not so much hostile to humankind as indifferent to it.

Laurence was born in 1865 in Brooklyn and academically trained as a painter in New York. He exhibited his work in successful shows in New York in the 1880s, married another young painter, and they moved to an artists' colony in England in 1889. Within five years he was winning awards at shows in Paris and London.

He traveled to China and Africa, working as an illustrator, and in 1904 he abandoned his wife and two children in England and came to Alaska to prospect for gold. He lived as a pioneer and prospector for 10 years before he moved to Valdez and returned to painting.

"A group of businessmen in Valdez commissioned him to do a large painting of Mount McKinley," Harper said. "That kind of kicked his career off. Then he moved to Anchorage and set up studios in the Anchorage Hotel, and his paintings started selling really well." That was about 1915, around the time of the birth of Anchorage itself, Harper said.

By 1920, Laurence was Alaska's most prominent painter.

Perseverance Theatre is borrowing several of Laurence's original paintings from the Alaska State Museum for the show, and they'll be on the mainstage at the Douglas theater.

"Syd" runs just under two hours, with a short intermission. Tickets are $10, available at Hearthside Books and at the door.

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