I AM STILL NOT DEAD
Oil and acrylic on wood panel
This one goes out to all of you whose lives and livelihoods are stuck in suspended animation. A message of solidarity from the Alaskan wood frog: stillness is not death. Movement and busyness are not to be confused with living. Hibernation is a strategy for survival. Right now the pond is frozen, and the frogs are burrowed into the leaves and dirt in the woods around our house, frozen solid with their veins full of sugar to keep their cells from breaking. We humans can’t pull off that physiological trick, but we’re an endlessly adaptive species, able to change our behavior on a massive scale to respond to a new threat. All of us who can hold still should. Sometime in late April or May the frogs here will thaw out and hop to the pond and start singing. How well we humans hibernate now determines how many singing voices we’ll hear when we re-emerge.
I AM STILL NOT DEAD
Oil and acrylic on wood panel
This is the map I drew for my friend and former coworker Eowyn Ivey’s second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World. It appears as a two-page spread in the American edition, and (much to my delight) is also printed on the front and back endpapers of the UK hardcover. I’ll admit I’ve bought books before for the sake of a good endpaper-map, so I get a real kick out of imagining a map I drew now lurking just undercover in bookstores everywhere, enticing casual browsers to read Eowyn’s story.
The fictional Lieut. Col. Allen Forrester’s 1885 expedition up the Wolverine River was inspired by the historical Lieut. Henry Allen’s 1885 expedition up the Copper River, so my map for the novel is a slightly altered version of the historical Allen map. Since readers will see the map before starting the story, the title is carefully worded to avoid giving away whether Forrester or any other members of the expedition actually survive to draw it themselves.
I mimicked the look and even the handwriting of the Allen map, but this Forrester map is a work of fiction – if the made-up place names don’t tip you off, then you should at least be suspicious that true north is marked by a trickster raven. Some place names (Unalaklik, Sushitna, Tetling) are true to spellings of the time, while others (like Perkins Island) are Eowyn’s inventions. (As long as we were playing loose with place-names, I took the liberty of renaming Kayak Island for Georg Steller, my favorite figure from the history of Alaskan exploration.) Like the historical Allen map, the Forrester map fills in from the 1884 USGS map of Alaska wherever the expedition didn’t survey in person. Unlike the Allen expedition, the Forrester group didn’t go up the Koyukuk River, so that area remains blank in this version. A couple details that are less fictional than they may appear: “Unexplored” comes straight from the 1884 USGS map, and “Mammoth bones” from a note further upriver on the Allen map (“Ice banks—Mammoth remains”).
My first version of the map had the Wolverine River and Trail River much more closely resembling the Copper and Chitina Rivers, but when I re-read the text I found that the travel times in the story required more space between the upper canyon and the start of the Trail River. After consulting more with Eowyn, I re-drew that whole area, and pulled the river further west while I was at it. The Wolverine River also appears in her first book, The Snow Child, where it’s a stand-in for the Matanuska River. I’m awfully attached to the notion that The Snow Child takes place in the woods and mountains of home, so in putting the Wolverine on a map, I put it as close to home as I could manage, given that this story pins the river’s mouth way over on the other side of Prince William Sound.
What’s in the Fair poster this year? Quite a lot – I had a field day with the Fair’s chosen theme of “Dig In!” The theme works on several levels – you can dig in to a delicious dish of Fair food, you can dig in to plant or to harvest our famous giant vegetables, you can dig into the history of the Fair and come up with buried treasure. Since this year is the 80th anniversary of the Matanuska Colony Project which established the town of Palmer as a farming community, and which led very directly to the establishment of the Fair in 1936, I wanted to highlight the agricultural roots of the Fair. This year’s poster shows the Alaska State Fair much as it is: a blossoming riot of colors and flavors that springs up at the end of every summer in a field near Palmer. Like the giant vegetables, the Fair was planted there on purpose and thrives in the rich soil and unique conditions of the place, and its flavor comes from where it grows. Dig into a bowl of stew at Bushes’ Bunches in the shadow of Farm Exhibits and you’ll be tasting the legacy of the colonists and homesteaders who cleared and planted the Valley – likewise if you watch Alaska Far Away in the Wineck Barn, or tour the Eckert Garden or the 4-H exhibits – or even if you use an ATM or admire the lights on the midway (Matanuska Valley Federal Credit Union and Matanuska Electric Association are member-owned cooperatives which grew out of the Colony). Dig into the Colony and you’ll find it grew out of seeds planted by pre-1935 homesteaders and by researchers at the Matanuska Experiment Station, part of the University of Alaska system – ask about that at the UAA Mat-Su College booth and see what they can tell you. The homesteaders followed the prospectors, who trekked from Knik up to the Talkeetnas seeking mineral wealth; their legacy at the Fair is in the little rock and mineral booths, and in the major mining and energy companies that are often big sponsors of events. The prospectors and homesteaders entered a landscape of Mesozoic rocks carved and pulverized by glaciers into a rich river valley, and inhabited by Dena’ina and Ahtna people who, along with Native groups from around the state, are at the Fair today drumming and dancing and selling crafts and food. All of this made Palmer the sort of community that would start up a Fair and keep it growing, where the whole state gathers each end of summer, where you can see Athabaskan storytelling and Yupik dances next to Russian icons and Guatemalan jewelry, eat Alaskan stew or seafood or sample culinary traditions from around the world. There’s much more to the Fair than can ever go into a single painting, but I hope this year’s poster helps people think about what’s “underground,” and how who we are and what we do today grows out of what came before.
Here are some things to look for in the poster:
•Alaskan prehistory – a Pachyrhinosaurus skull, the K/T boundary, a woolly mammoth
•Stone adze head and arrowhead
•I did paint in a more recent Dena'ina arrow based on one in an exhibit at the Anchorage Museum, though it doesn't show up well at all
•Rock pick, gold pan, and gold (and Yukon Golds)
•Plow blade and spade
•Matanuska Maid glass milk bottle
•Max Sherrod’s spectacles
(Max Sherrod was a nurse with the Colony, and namesake of my elementary school, who started the Fair tradition of growing giant cabbages. His glasses are among the artifacts at the Colony House Museum.)
•Kennedy campaign button
(The only time to date that a presidential candidate has bothered campaigning in Alaska was JFK’s visit to the Alaska State Fair in 1960, for the first presidential election after Alaska became a state. My friends’ grandfather was mayor of Palmer and got to ride in the car with Kennedy to the fairgrounds, then located downtown where the Pioneers’ Home is now. The car got stuck in the mud and the men had to get out and push.)
•Blue and gold pin commemorating the 50th anniversary of Alaska statehood
(I was working as signmaker for the Fair in 2008, so I wound up at the big statehood celebration on opening day of the Fair. There was an address by the governor, words from local luminaries, and music from Hobo Jim. My friend from California was amazed that the whole audience at the woodlot could sing along to the Alaska Flag Song. Evidently, other places, it’s unusual to know the state song by heart.)
•Alaska state quarter
(It’s the bright silver bit; I don’t have a small enough brush to make the bear and salmon actually legible at that scale. Fun fact about the Alaska quarter: it was introduced in 2008, and there was going to be a launching ceremony at the Colony Stage with the governor. Governor Palin didn’t show up that day. Instead, by afternoon, the first batch of “McCain-Palin” T-shirts appeared for sale on the Red Trail, and we’d entered one of the strangest seasons ever for Alaskan politics.)
•Forget-me-nots (AK state flower)
(There is a moose reference in each Fair poster I’ve done, as a nod to my art mentor Brad Hughes, the grand master of Alaska State Fair posters who created the popular Fair mascot “Moosey.”)
•Chicken and rabbit
•A “fiddlehead” fern
•Flowers made out of cotton candy, fried onion, oysters, a blue ribbon, lollipops, peach pie and ice cream, Yupik dance fans, balloons, a Ferris wheel, a trumpet, the Squirrel Cages ride, and the wheel from the Rat Races
•and, of course, Pioneer Peak
Why the long gap in updates to my art website? Well, partly because I spent much of last year on an involuntary career hiatus, followed by a project which took me a lot longer than usual. Here’s why:
I was born cross-eyed, and even after several surgeries as a kid to get my eyes mostly aligned, I still never learned to use both eyes together in proper stereo vision. Instead I’ve always used one eye at a time, alternating between them as easily as you might shift your weight from one foot to the other. Monocular vision works great for drawing and painting, not so well for parallel parking or tennis, but I would have merrily continued on like that for the rest of my life except I gradually started getting eye strain headaches whenever I tried to draw. It took me a year of misery and procrastination to catch on that my inability to focus on my work was an actual physical problem and not entirely some moral failure as an artist. Fortunately for me, this happened while I was in Washington, where the state’s Apple Health (Medicaid) covered the eye doctor visits to get the cause of my headaches diagnosed, and vision therapy to gradually correct and re-train my misaligned eyes. (Anyone curious about the process can read “Stereo Sue” by Oliver Sacks, or Fixing My Gaze by Susan Barry.) Over the past year I've learned for the first time to look out of both eyes simultaneously, how to control my eye muscles better to physically align both eyes where I'm focusing, and am just starting to get the hang of actually forming a binocular image, though it's still tricky and I end up with a lot of patchy double vision, seeing people with three eyes, that sort of visual nonsense. I'm not yet convinced the third dimension lives up to the hype, if that's even what I'm starting to see now, but at least my headaches aren't as bad as before.
With my vision doing strange new things, it was frustrating bordering on impossible to get much art done, so for most of the winter, I didn’t do art (and tried my best not to think of the terrifying possibility that changing my vision might not work, or might even make things worse). Then the Alaska State Fair contacted me for another poster (and logos, and illustrations). I warned them I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, but I liked the theme of “Dig In!” chosen for 2015, my vision was very slowly improving, and I had done the Fair’s artwork twice before so I knew what I was getting into. Hesitantly, I accepted the challenge. This spring, while painting the poster, I had stopped ignoring one eye at a time but hadn't yet got the hang of using them together, so I felt like I was seeing everything twice in almost but not quite the same place, and it was very confusing. The poster is designed so that I could work in small patches of detail and not have to be constantly aware of the whole image. It's not usually the best way to paint, but at that point it was the only way I could paint without seeing too much. (In frustration one night I tried painting the poster half-blindfolded to replicate my old vision. It was less confusing, but I got a headache even quicker that way.) It took a lot of breaks and a lot of ibuprofen, but I think it turned out pretty well, all considering.
Now I can paint or draw for a few hours at a time without headaches, and I’m gradually getting back to my own artwork. It’s slow going, after so long of subliminally associating doing art with feeling terrible. Last year, not knowing what was wrong other than I'd stopped enjoying the process of making art, I was starting to wonder if maybe I was just not meant to be an artist and should give up and do something else. Even if I had figured out on my own what was wrong with my vision, as an artist with bad eyes I never would have been able to pay to fix it. I’m grateful that Washington has good free healthcare for low-income artists. I’m looking forward to being a more productive member of society again, and to earning enough to pay the taxes to provide care for others who need it. I have some paintings about Washington history I want to make in part to acknowledge that debt I owe to society.
Well, not so happy for him, seeing as he died in 1746, but we can feel celebratory anyway that he accomplished some real additions to human knowledge in his lifetime, and under some outrageously adverse circumstances. Steller, along with Captain-Commander Vitus Bering and crew, in 1741 sailed into what was then a large blank spot on the world’s maps. Faced with storms, scurvy, shipwreck, the death of Bering, and a winter spent near starvation on a desolate island, Steller survived and returned to Russia with marvelous information on the flora and fauna of the strange new land we now know as Alaska.
Some of the animals first described by Steller are familiar species to those of us who live in what was once Russian America, like the Steller's jay who flashed past my window this morning (and pooped on my car last week). Others, like the enormous sea cow and the flightless spectacled cormorant, were hunted to extinction so swiftly that Steller’s notes and a few bones and rumors are the only evidence we have that they ever existed.
I’ve had a fascination with the massive, doomed Steller’s Sea Cow ever since reading Corey Ford’s hauntingly majestic book Where the Sea Breaks Its Back when I was a teenager. I had the idea then for a painting of all Steller’s namesake animals, a challenge which I’ve finally decided to take on this winter. To give you a notion of what sort of challenge this is, here’s a list of the organisms I’m trying to cram into this picture (and I’m still finding more to add to this list):
And those are just the common names!
Though most of us know his name today from marine mammals and birds, in his time Steller was well known as a botanist, and was held in high esteem by Linnaeus. It’s worth noting the binomial nomenclature made standard by Linnaeus was not yet in use when Steller went to Alaska. Furthermore, since Steller died young, most of his discoveries were formally named by other scientists working from his notes and specimens. One might get the impression from this list that the guy was a bit of a megalomaniac, but it wasn’t Steller who named everything for himself. I suspect a few organisms named for Steller are more recent discoveries named in his honor, which he never personally encountered, but I’ve not yet gotten deep enough into his notes to sort out which are which.
Some Steller love in the Latin names:
Then there are the organisms not actually named for Steller, but so closely associated with him that I’d like to work them into the painting anyway – the spectacled cormorant, which Steller was the only scientist to describe before its extinction; the salmonberry, about which he waxed rhapsodical upon finding it on Kayak Island (Bering was not so enthused about his naturalist’s attempt to lug home several bushes replanted in boxes, and refused cargo space); and the fur seal and sea otter described in De Bestiis Marinis.
The sea otter, especially, merits a nod, as the news of its luxurious fur was probably the most important fact the Bering expedition returned about the new land to the east of Kamchatka. That fur was Alaska’s original black gold. The mad rush of hunters who swarmed up the Aleutian chain forever altered the North Pacific coast, in ways that Georg Steller – nature lover, despiser of wasteful slaughter, outspoken advocate for fair treatment of Native people – would have found appalling. We have lost, wholly or partially, many of the natural and cultural riches Steller glimpsed at first contact; it is in part thanks to his keen observations, carefully preserved, that we have not forgotten entirely such wonders ever existed.
Greetings, denizens of the Internet! I have here a little blog; I suppose it would be good if I wrote in it once in a while. Maybe once I get in the habit of updating regularly, I can start handing out my business card without apologizing for the dismal state of my website.
For your amusement, to start things off, here's a map I drew on a postcard and sent to my aunt and uncle a little over a year ago, after I moved to Seattle. Hand-drawn memory maps are a hobby of mine. You think you know your geography until you try to draw the US and can't for the life of you come up with a Nebraska-shaped hole where Nebraska ought to maybe be. This one of the road from Palmer to Seattle is more accurate than some, mostly because I'd spent four days with the Milepost map while driving down, and that was still fairly fresh in my mind when I drew it.
Some of the small text that will be hard to read in this image:
(at the Canadian border): "Cue up the Stan Rogers, we're in Canada now!"
(scrawled geographically, with arrows, all over lower Yukon Territory):
They looked for him in Carmacks --> Haines (Jnctn) --->
and Carcross (w/ Teslin closed there's nowhere else to go)
But he hit the 4 wheel drive in Johnson's Crossing ---->
now he's 38 miles up the CANOL ROAD
in the SALMON RANGE at forty-eight below!
(along the road in BC): Wild horses - black bear cubs - neat tower - Quesnel smells like pulp mills - 108 Mile House - heard gas station attendant say "eh"
(along the Fraser River): To race the roaring Fraser to the sea
Careful observers will note that Stan Roger's "Northwest Passage" album was on heavy rotation for this trip.
About the Artist
Ruth Hulbert was born and raised in Palmer, Alaska. She graduated in 2008 with a BA in biology and painting from Western Washington University. Ruth completed a certificate in natural science illustration through the University of Washington in Seattle in 2013.