On November 3rd, I parked my car at the Morris Center across from a two story mural of an elderly tribeswoman handling a salmon with the caption: “What the hands do, the heart learns.” This was my first First Friday anywhere, ever. Although a popular phenomenon across the country, I have always avoided crowds and therefore usually go to museums or art galleries in the early weekday hours. But I’m new to Fairbanks and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to dive into the community.
I entered the Morris Center and was greeted by a volunteer from the Alaska Songbird Institute, which was putting on the raven-themed showing. I knew that the Raven is the creator in much of the mythology from Alaskan tribes, so I had high expectations for the show. I shuffled about and scanned the crowd for my friends; there were lumberjack-types in Carharts, smirking, purple-haired women, old-timers guffawing in groups, and people taking cold cuts offered as snacks by the handful. I couldn’t spot any booze to guzzle, nor friends to saddle up beside, so I dove into the art.
Laurel Carnahan’s art offered a wide array of ravens in cozy repose. They were reading books and drinking coffee. There were other ravens yin-yanging with wolves. Her medium was a colorful fabric made from many silk fibers, which she made through the process of “silk fusion.” She dyes all the fabric at once and then usually works on several pieces at a time. Many people purchased them.
The next booth was Carrie Aronson of Aronson Designs. A jewelerist based here in Fairbanks, she works mostly in silver, although there was some feather and turquoise on her table as well. Personally, I thought her pieces stole the show, specifically her tiny precious metal origami. She actually manages to make silver bend and set in bird form, through kiln fire, looking as intricate and folded as paper, yet miniaturized, not even an inch wide. I saw many other observers be as taken as I was with her art.
I finally bumped into one friend from my village who is in Fairbanks to prepare for the oil drilling season on the North Slope. He expressed his reluctance about being at an art scene and excitement for the fat dough he will soon make up north. At twenty-one years old, it’ll be the first time he earns serious money; he explained that he planned to buy land. As he was doing so, I made eye contact with a woman that I’d been talking to on Tinder and felt immediately disarmed and alert at once. Is Fairbanks that small? She also had purple hair. Why is there so much purple hair in Fairbanks?
Focus, yes, back to the art.
Bernet Nelson, also operates her studio, On the Trail Creations, in Fairbanks. She is a quilt maker, and had a smattering of birds and other animals on display, quite acutely, like a puzzle of fabric. I was particularly smitten with one black and white number that showcased several swallows set in a birch that had impressive plumage rising from the 2D plane. Nelson also offers quilting classes for those interested in taking up a new hobby, some even on Zoom.
Across the aisle, I heard a woman pass Knezak (nee-zick) dot Art and proclaim, “I soooo enjoy the depths of your sky!” She was right – the skies contained depth and yearning, all lonely night landscape silhouettes. These seemed to be all watercolor, but her website notes that the artist, Teresa, does digital art as well. She told me at the booth that she’s “working on a northern lights effect but she’s not happy with it yet.” Which I respected — so much of art is about the drive, and we gawkers can feel that tug, even if the artist isn’t entirely pleased. Maybe particularly if they are not.
Another one of my buddies from my village rolled up with a mother and son pair, Heaven and Lyric, (although I wasn’t quite sure which name belonged to mom or child) and suddenly we had a crew. We bumped into an old dog musher who regaled us with his time spent out in Wrangell mountains and the adventures that he had with our elders. Kids cackled. It felt good to be in Fairbanks, and we decided we would head out of the Morris Center to the next art venue.
On our way out, however, we stopped by one last booth with paper lanterns adorned with, you guessed it, ravens. Along with an assortment of other animals and flowers and trees too. This was the work of artist Jamelle Duszynski, who disclosed to me while wearing a black and gold tiara, that before she became a full-time artist, she had spent 13 (!) years working at UAF’s very own International Arctic Research Center. Interestingly, her very neat lanterns are actually made with wine boxes. She divulged that they were all of Bota origin. Her favorite type? Pinot Grigio. Mine too. If that’s not upcycling, I’m not sure what is. On the way out the door I spotted another woman that I’d spoken to on a dating app. I averted my eyes and wondered if this really was a city, or just a large village.
We trudged through the white streets to The Venue. A couple of my friends shared that they too were UAF alums, and insisted we go to a hockey game. As we rounded 2nd Street, I followed them, all hunched and shelled like beetles down the winter sidewalk. After we went up the indoor stairs, my crew beelined it to the beer table on the left and I hooked right to a room full of art by Natalie Schuldt.
Schuldt, a second generation Fairsbanksian, titled her Venue show “Home,” which celebrated her town and its connection to nature through a series of woodcuts and monoprints. Her nostalgic choices of familiar local sights, such as the Immaculate Conception Church or simple birch stands, in very muted colors that often contrasted with a shocking yet pale dose of yellow, were very redolent of those precious sunny winter hours. I actually considered buying one, but the price tags were not commensurate with university wages. This didn’t deter me from absorbing their aura of gentle warmth as I wandered from piece to piece. Eventually I almost bumped into another woman – a third! – that I was texting with on a dating app. There was no escaping this encounter. We exchanged quizzical glances and bashful smiles. Did she recognize me? I said hi, and then she and her friend walked past. I retreated to my crew. Grover, a new friend and another oil man, adorned in a fine wool vest and driving cap, was ruddy from beer and joy. “I love Fairbanks,” he mused, “We’ve got a little bit of everything,” his eyes resting on the busy front door.
Before heading out for the night, I had counted around ten different events/openings around town. I decided to just follow my friends and let the night take me instead of racing around trying to see it all. We were getting hungry at this point, but decided we would go to one more show. Across the street, we ducked into a mall housing 2 Street Gallery. Inside, I was studying the botanical prints adorned with various avian specimens when I was quickly accosted by a sharp looking young woman – black leather jacket, hands riddled with tatts, inquisitive eyes – who asked me what I was writing in my notebook. When I told her I was covering the event for The Sun Star, she explained that this was her and her mother’s show.
Claire Granger, the young woman, painted the birds on the botanical paper that her mother, Rebecca Hammer, made. They have been an art duo around Fairbanks for some time, and this was actually their first show in two years because Claire is enrolled at Portland State, studying social work; she had flown back for the weekend just for the event. She explained that while traditionally she used a photograph of a bird to paint it, lately she had been free-handing and showed me an example of a yellow warbler that vibrated off the paper. Her birds really came to life through their eyes, of which Claire had elicited exquisite detail. Her mother went on to tell me about the botanical paper making process: variations of leaves, heavy duty water color papers, all rolled up on various pipes and boiled for three to four hours each. Each set of botanical paper was a science project unto itself. The lives and love of mother and child were captured in their artwork, and the richness showed.
Grover herded us all into the mall’s hallway. People were getting hungry and thirsty. There was a fashion show going on in the mall’s gallery, Roxy from Roxy’s Secondhand on the microphone exalting her model’s wears, from fur collar to boot. Several people and several large fully mounted animals— bear, fox, and beaver —looked on as a man wailed a saxophone. We watched for a moment before moving together back into the night and the cold, braced against both firmly with friends and laughter and enough art for one evening…