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Inspiration: An artist in residence amidst 20,000 Arctic acres

Jillian RogersThe Arctic Sounder
Alaska Newspapers courtesty photo

Juneau painter Constance Baltuck is a professional artist. She's been crafting fine works for decades and can make a living selling her creations. But her definition of an artist is much broader than someone who sells pretty pictures. She sees art and artists everywhere she goes.

"Anyone who practices art is an artist," Baltuck said. "Even if someone wished they were doing art, I consider them an artist."

Last summer, when Baltuck volunteered to be the very first artist-in-residence at Kobuk Valley National Park, which entailed two weeks in the Arctic wilds with a team of bear biologists and helpers, she really wasn't sure what she had gotten herself into.

"I went through the usual 'Oh my God, I can't believe I said I'd do this,'" she recalled on the phone from Juneau. "But I couldn't not say 'yes' with such an adventure on the horizon."

Baltuck has been in Alaska since 1981, but has never strayed very far from her home in Juneau where she landed three decades ago from Michigan. She has always been artistically inclined and grew up drawing and painting with her siblings and her dad.

In August, Baltuck packed up a barebones supply of painting accoutrements and headed with a small crew to the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, a 20,500-acre area located east of Kotzebue, 40 miles above the Arctic Circle in the Kobuk Valley National Park.

The idea of bringing an artist to this ongoing bear-count study in the Arctic was put into motion by National Park Service biologist Marci Johnson, who has been studying bear populations in the park and had heard of scientists recruiting artists to join in remote studies elsewhere in the state. The idea behind the nation-wide program is that an artist trades one piece of art for chance to travel into the wilderness. The trip gives the artists the inspiration and time to complete as many works as they want that can later be sold or displayed as long as one is given back to that particular agency. Currently any works that are given back will be hung in the Heritage Center in Kotzebue.

The artist-in-residence program has been happening in various parks and forests statewide for several years and involves collaboration between a number of agencies, said Linda Jeschke, Chief of Interpretation for the Western Arctic National Parklands.

"A lot of parks have had artists in residence, but this was our first foray into the program," Jeschke said of Baltuck's trip into Kobuk.

And, Jeschke said, they've already got a couple other trips in the works.

In August, Kotzebue artist Elaine Phillips will join the Parks Service on a trip to Onion Portage and perhaps later in the fall, a different artist will be invited to either float the Noatak River or backpack through the Noatak National Preserve.

While creating about 90 percent of the time, artists are also on hand to help out with light camp duties. The artist-in-residence program has also proved to be a way for artists to be completely engrossed in the surroundings they want to capture on canvas.

"The hardest thing for me at first was that I haven't been back-packing for several years," Baltuck confessed, adding that she got stronger as the days wore on. The crew, which included several dogs used to sniff out bear scat that the biologists used to collect DNA, had to move camp several times during the excursion, sometimes hiking for several hours to get to the next food cache.

"It was like being on another planet," Baltuck said. "And that wind was constant. The clouds were in constant motion and moving all the time, it was amazing."

Each day, Baltuck would have breakfast with the troop and then head off into the wild to find a suitable painting spot. Occasionally, she'd head out after dinner to paint again. That was her life for two weeks: camping and painting.

"It was great to be able to have that kind of focus," Baltuck said, adding that there was only one day of foul weather that kept everyone in their tents.

Though she expected the Dunes and surrounding tundra to perhaps be a little limited for painting matter, it was quite the opposite, she said.

"It was amazing to see so many wildflowers and their adaptation to living there. You could see storms off in the distance, and the rainbows ... I was surrounded by this enormous sky (and) huge vistas and the treasures of these little details. It was fascinating; I was blown away."

Capturing these details and expanses took a lot of planning. How does an artist carry all her many supplies on her back? A little Alaska ingenuity, that's how.

Baltuck rolled up large sheets of canvas and brought a few spreader bars to make a temporary frame wherever she was painting. And since acrylic paint dries relatively quickly, she was able to roll up her works in progress at end of each day to hike back to camp.

Challenged again by which colors to pack, Baltuck kept it simple. She brought her three favorite colors magenta, a warm yellow and a rich blue and a tube of white to lighten her palette and achieve some warmer, muted tones.

Though she mostly paints outside where she lives in Juneau, it was quite a unique experience being complete immersed in the wilderness.

"Working outside, in the desert, wasn't a huge leap for me but the big difference was having to stretch out my canvas every time and the experience of being outside all the time, day and night. Having the outdoors and art be so intertwined ... it was amazing."

While in the park, Baltuck worked on several pieces, but it wasn't until months later that she completed them, one by one, at home. She donated one of her works to the park and is on display at the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center in Kotzebue. Also, as a way to give back, Baltuck hosted a painting workshop in Kotzebue after her time in the park. About 25 locals attended to see "just what the heck I was doing up there," Baltuck laughed. Artists then got to take home a small selection of paints so they could continue painting at home, or in the wilderness.

"I was so impressed with how Marci and the Park Service brought the community together for art in the park. I encouraged people to record their adventures in a sketch book. Observing your surroundings and recording your impressions of a place, it fixes it in your brain," Baltuck said. "This experience has really inspired me to have more adventures of this nature.

"What a fantastic way to experience another part of the world."

Read more about her adventure and view a gallery of images created in the park at www.constancebaltuck.com.

This article was originally published in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.