Reincarnated as art

Alaska artists have transformed the abandoned, the antique and the obsolete into art pieces on display starting this weekend at the Alaska State Museum

Posted: Thursday, December 06, 2001

The woman is pretty. You can see that well enough.

The two black-and-white studio portraits are maybe 70 years old, curled and splotchy with age. They are hooked up to a device, a sort of Frankenstein's laboratory assemblage of wires and old dry-cell batteries.

Don Mohr built the machine around the photographs. Mohr found the pictures among his father's things after he died. The artist doesn't know anything about the woman; his father never mentioned her.

The machine doesn't operate in the mechanical sense - it's a piece of art Alaska State Museum Curator Mark Daughhetee saw in Mohr's Anchorage studio and learned the story.

Mohr's sculpture, "Man in the Black Coat Turns," is one of 44 pieces of art in "Found and Assembled in Alaska," a new show opening this weekend at the Alaska State Museum.

"Virtually all of the work grows out of a piece of something, a found treasure," said exhibit co-curator Julie Decker of Anchorage.

Some are humble - broken toys, packing materials and scraps of metal that look as if they were run over by cars. Others are junk-store treasures, antique precision instruments and obsolete tools. Some of the artwork is deeply personal, with tiny inscriptions such as "I am nobody" suggesting loss and despair. Others are whimsical and playful.

Each will have a statement by the artist to give the viewer some insight into what the artist was thinking.


"I like the information," Daughhetee said. "You can form your own opinion but you can find out what the artist was thinking."

Daughhetee said some are very visual and some are conceptual, in which the idea is more important than the appearance of the sculpture.

"Something that seems common to all the artists is a sense of nostalgia," Decker said. "Even if it's not something from their own past, it's from somebody's past, there's a sense of that."

She said for artists such as Ken Gray, who taught sculpture at the University of Alaska Anchorage until his death in 1994, the history of the tools themselves were intriguing, not the former owners.

"The objects get personified, so they have a life and a history," Decker said. "There's a sense of reverence for the object."

Decker is co-owner of the Anchorage Decker/Morris Gallery and co-director of the International Gallery of Contemporary Art. She is the author of "Icebreakers: Alaska's Most Innovative Artists," and shortly after finishing that book two years ago she launched this project.

Decker envisioned "Found and Assembled" as a book, a tribute to contemporary artists in Alaska. Published earlier this year, the book features 144 pieces of artwork by 55 artists.

Daughhetee took the book idea one step further and organized the show. Selecting the artwork became a found-and-assembled-in-Alaska experience in itself. Daughhetee said it was important to see the artwork firsthand to select what would be best suited for exhibition.

He traveled to Anchorage, Fairbanks and other communities, visiting many of the artists in their studios. In some cases, such as Mohr's "Man in the Black Coat Turns," he found art that wasn't part of Decker's book.

"A number of these artists work in different media and are better known for being painters, illustrators and photographers," Daughhetee said. "Some are best known for their assemblages."

In an art studio in North Pole he found award-winning art teacher Carol Hilgemann, now retired, sitting at her desk, carefully tearing words out of a book. She glued hundreds of the tiny slips to dismembered doll parts, meticulously combining scraps of maps, game pieces and printed non sequiturs with a small wooden box to create a three-dimensional collage.

Hilgemann will be in Juneau on Friday for the opening reception of "Found and Assembled." She also will teach two free classes Saturday for young artists to create their own sculptures with found objects. A workshop for students in grades three through five will be held from 10 a.m.-noon, and for students in grades six through eight from 1-3 p.m. Call 465-2901 to register.

Decker will be in Juneau for Friday's opening reception from 4:30-6:30 at the museum. She'll talk about the project and the book, and show slides of some of the other artwork in the book, at 7 p.m. at the museum.

Riley Woodford can be reached at

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