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Inner exploration: One man's journey from food to paint

Posted: Thursday, December 23, 2004

If you've walked through the concourse in the Merchant's Wharf building at anytime in the past six months, you may have looked up at the high, white walls near the entrance to The Hangar on the Wharf. Across the hall from the money machine is a large oil painting of a bespectacled man holding a seagull, as if it were an ice cream cone.

The man laments, "Nobody sees me." The bird, looking sage, replies, "What a conundrum."

The narrative is baffling. But then, you should meet Charles Whipple, 51, an Alaska resident since 1972 who spent 10 years as an offshore commercial fisherman, 15 years on tugboats, and the interim weeks as a chef at restaurants throughout Southeast.

Whipple began painting 11 years ago, when he turned 40. He now spends two weeks at a time working on the Kennicott, then two weeks ensconced at his Douglas apartment, filling his oil paintings with inner reflections, inside jokes and extremely detailed facial expressions.

"I've always had a desire to express creativity one way or another," Whipple said. "One day it occurred to me that the simplest thing I could do was to learn how to paint. It would just (be) me and the brush and the canvas."

Whipple had his first solo show in September 2002 at the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council gallery. A few weeks later, he noticed the wall behind the Hangar's bandstand was empty. He began displaying his paintings in the space. One in particular, a portrait of his daughter's pitbull, Daisy, began to attract attention.

"The bartenders and waiters got tired of people asking for my telephone number and information," Whipple said. "There was so much demand for that original, I thought I may as well make prints."

Whipple hadn't planned on going commercial for five years, but now he has four prints, with a fifth on the way. They're available from a 5-foot-tall display case near the Hangar entrance, or from whippleart@gci.net.

He also has a dozen paintings, including the man and the seagull, hanging in the Wharf hallway.

Five by Whipple

A closer look at five Charles Whipple oil paintings on display in the Merchant's Wharf hallway:

• The man holding the seagull: "A friend of mine who works on the ferries, Orville Wiley, was drawing little derogatory cartoons of me and putting them in the elevator control booth where he knew I'd see them. He called them Whipple birds. So it was payback. I'd do a painting of him, three feet by four feet, that will last 500 years. And so I had a photograph of him holding an ice cream cone, and replaced the cone with a seagull. I put the bird on his hand, and the bird looks a little more intelligent than he does."

• The dog: "That's my granddaughter, Daisy, my daughter's (pitbull). She really loved me. She was sitting at my feet and I was looking right down at her. She wanted me to get down there and roll around with her. You can see it in her eyes."

• The solitary window: "That was done for a friend who has an office in the Kennicott without a window. I painted her a window."

• The disembodied head and the woman saying, "Has anybody seen Charles:" "That's Shana (Fulker), the head of housekeeping. She was the first person I worked for on the ferry. One day she looked me right in the eye, and didn't know who I was, and said, 'Has anyone seen Charles?' She was always trying to get me to climb into a laundry bag. So I'm sitting there in a laundry bag."

• The man and the woman, with three stars behind them: "I do a lot of abstracts that have stars in them, and someone once asked me what the stars meant. It occurred to me later that they represent relationships of people. And those two people, Simone de Pury and Daniella Luxembourg, they're the third-largest art dealers in the world. The stars represent their three partners."

"Boats were always a means to get where I wanted to go," Whipple said. "After all that outer exploration, I became more interested in inner exploration. My paintings are kind of a form of that. I can sit in front of a canvas for 10 hours and not get bored."

Whipple was born in 1953 in New York state. By the time he finished high school, he knew he wanted to go east to art school or go west to see the wilderness.

"I chose wilderness," he said. "It was the only practical thing to do."

He went to college in Boulder, Colo., for six months, but was unimpressed. He tried Aspen, but discovered the only way to survive was to work at a resort. He moved to Denver, worked at a restaurant long enough to save money for a plane ticket, and flew to Kodiak in 1972. He's lived in Alaska since.

Whipple spent 10 years offshore on commercial fishing boats and 15 years working on tugboats. In between boat jobs, he worked in restaurants and raised his family. In 1975, he was the dining room manager of the Juneau Hilton, now the Goldbelt. By 1982, word was spreading about a restaurant he was running in Pelican. He cooked at Yancy Derringer's, now the Hangar on the Wharf, in 1983.

He was the chef at the Highway Lodge in Craig in 1983. And he was the chef at Ketchikan's Gateway Club, across the street from the spruce mill, in 1984.

"I'd blend flavors and balance the colors," Whipple said. "I'd make a four-color garnish built out of a slice of orange, a chunk of pineapple, a Maraschino cherry and parsley coming out of it. I'd build deluxe baked potatoes, real fluffy with lots of bacon and chopped green onion for color. And the steaks were done on a broiler so the cross-hatching patterns were perfect."

"I built each plate, start to finish, and 50 plates of dinner a night was my average for a year," he said. "It was a tremendous load, and it was kind of depressing, because I put everything I could into making masterpieces, and then 15 minutes later it was garbage."

Whipple eventually bought a 1 1/2-story 1906 home across from Ketchikan's City Float and Tongass Narrows, intending to turn it into a restaurant.

"What I really wanted to do was art, and rather than have to raise all this money and get all these other people involved, I realized that if I learned to paint there would be no middle man," he said.

Whipple went back to tugboats, and by 1993 he had a job as a mate and enough security to start painting. He took a few classes, but most of what he learned he had to unlearn. By sheer volume of work, he taught himself about color, shadows, light and balance. On a trip to Vancouver, British Columbia, he made an important breakthrough, and learned how to coax a smoother surface out of his resin oils.

He started with landscapes but quickly discovered that people were more challenging.

"Landscapes are pretty, but a tree is a tree is a tree," he said. "It just doesn't have the depth that a human has. I think that's why people really liked that dog painting. You can see multiple emotions."

Recently, Whipple has painted a series of signs for the Kennicott. He also spent 160 hours painting the 5-foot-diameter, 32-year-old plaster cast Alaska state seal on the Malaspina. His future plans include completing a series of oil cartoons based on his fellow employees on the Kennicott. A few are already in the Wharf hallway. Another, a painting of Capt. William Hopkins, his chief engineer and first engineer, is in his living room, nearing completion.

"I really like (Paul) Gaugin and (Vincent) Van Gogh, but I don't paint anything like them," Whipple said. "Somebody that really influenced me is (Leonardo) Da Vinci. In the foreground, the people he paints will be super-detailed, but the backgrounds will be almost cartoonish. On some level, I guess I'm taking that to an extreme. I want the person to look absolutely life-like, but with a cartoon background."

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



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