Painting in the Field
...AND MOUNTAIN, GLACIER, MEADOW, AND VALLEY
The above is from our friend and esteemed artist, Bill Brody, who has flown to various locations in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park 17+ times over 20+ years! His paintings and sketches created in this wilderness can be admired in the Kennicott Valley and in all major museums in Alaska. Of the hundreds of paintings he has created in this remote corner of the state, most have sold in Alaska, some across the country, and others around the world. Read on for Brody’s “behind-the-scenes,” first-hand accounts of creating several of his stunning works.
The most meaningful places I’ve painted have been in Wrangell-St. Elias (WSE) and on the glaciers near Denali. I can truthfully say WSE is the baddest, scariest wilderness I’ve experienced. I started going on extended wilderness painting trips in 1989, at first mostly in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, although I painted a couple of times in Kluane National Park in the early 90’s. One of my camping buddies knew Kelly (founding owner of Wrangell Mountain Air - WMA) from pipeline days and suggested flying with WMA. The first trip I took in WSE was to Skolai, the second to Iceberg Lake, then Doubtful Creek.
The past ten years has seen me going out more and more often solo, in large part, because few of my contemporaries do this sort of thing anymore. At the conclusion of one of my early solo trips, to Chimney Mountain, Kelly introduced me to Neil (owner of McCarthy Lodge) early in Neil’s tenure in McCarthy. Years later Neil started sponsoring me, a relationship I enjoy to the present. There are two paintings in the saloon from Wolverine, one in the restaurant from Mile High Cliffs, and one in the store in Kennecott from above Ross Green Lake. Neil personally has one from Fan Glacier, one from Grotto Creek, and one from Upper Tebay Lake. While painting the piece completed at Grotto Creek, the slot canyon nearby had walls so close I was able to straddle them and look down the 50-75’ to the stream below.
I started a pattern of flying-in, hiking for a ways to set up a base camp from which I’d hike further and set up to paint all-day-every-day until I was done with a painting. Then I’d repeat in another location. When I’m out in the field, my standard canvas size is 72” x 44”. I do gesture drawing as from the moving model and seal it in with alkyd medium. When I have a pretty well finished a black-and-white drawing I glaze over the sketch with transparent oils and finish with alternating glazes and opaque passages while the scene tells me that this and that is important. Often weather changes during the process and calls out different stories. I finish when the painting no longer speaks, “fix this; fix that” to me. Large paintings usually reach this point after about 40 hours.
Most days, when I’m wilderness painting, I go on short hikes and sketch on smaller pieces of loose canvas. When it’s winter, I work in my studio and finish the field sketches and do new work in a wide variety of media including large woodcuts, sculpture, and works in formed carved and painted metal. And when I’m in the studio alone I recall the relative purity of the wilderness experience and try to attain that same purity of call and response in my solitary endeavor in the private place of my studio.
I have had my encounters with wildlife, but large fauna have not been my focus. The young grizzly bear seen on the lower right of the canvas came around the painting while I was working on it during a 16-day solo painting trip in Gates of the Arctic NP. This is the only time I’ve ever relied on a firearm. I first saw the bear when he came around my painting about ten feet away. I yelled, but the bear ignored my voice except to look directly at me and keep walking toward me. I drew my revolver and when the bear got about five feet away I fired a shot into the air. The bear turned and walked away.
I go into the wilderness to witness the landscape by painting and drawing what it is like to be there in mind and body. I commit to this venture so long as I am able. This is my beacon, the measure against which all the rest of my art must stand. When I'm out in the landscape I wait until the land seems to move; to come alive. I start to see geological and biological processes and personalize them. I feel how the land folds back onto itself, touching one part to another like a blow; like a caress; like hands rubbing against the cold... And then there's the light, and the clouds blowing and dancing in the sky, the endlessly flowing water and blowing trees.
I’ve known that being an artist is my life’s work since I was 15, so more than 60 years and counting. I’m a lucky man.
Looming out of the Fosse was sketched from near camp about 1/2 mile above the strip where I was flown in by WMA. The Fosse is part of the western lateral moraine northwest of Kennicott accessible by foot from town - but not by me with my 120+ pounds of gear. I painted one looking north, one looking south and Looming out of the Fosse looking north from below the ridge of the moraine. The dune-like ridge captured my attention.
Oh, Mt. Wrangell Won't You Come Out To Play? Is recent and, again, flown in by WMA to the Wrangell Plateau. I was with Klara Maisch, an artist I admire and who has serious backcountry skills. The Wrangell Plateau is a large bowl-like feature with the huge Mt. Wrangell overlooking. Mt. Wrangell isn’t steep but it’s tall and broad. It’s a shield volcano, snow covered and often hidden by drifting clouds… at least the two weeks I was there. I kept waiting for the top to show but it stayed hidden. The snow on the lower reaches is a somewhat warmer color than on high, probably from blowing silt or daytime melting. This is a subtle glow.
Mt. Saint Elias was started on location in May. I flew in with Paul Claus (owner of Ultima Thule Lodge) landing on skis in an extremely remote location. Serious wind shredded one of my tents and caused me to ask for early termination of that trip. Mt St. Elias is the third highest peak in North America rising out from the Pacific, to the west, and from the Bagley Ice Field, to the east. I was about 8 miles from the summit and the wind was often fierce so my painting is hurried and gestural.
Nizina Lake was painted entirely on location in Wrangell St Elias while I was camped near the put-in point on Nizina Lake for floating the Nizina River. This was a peaceful trip with not much drama. I saw a few people who flew in, including a couple of pilots who came to the lake to get ice for cocktails. I used the lake ice for drinking and cooking. The flow lines on the icebergs caught my attention.
Above Nizina Lake was painted from a sketch during that same trip with a particular focus on the linear patterns on the icebergs. There was a river otter slapping its tail like a junior beaver.