March 15, 2006
An historic Alaskan painting that had long been thought lost has emerged from obscurity after an absence of 70 years.
The painting, "Alaskan Fishing Village Dawn, 1937," by Karl Fortess, was one of many commissioned by the federal government during the Great Depression by the Federal Arts Project (FAP) that vanished after that program ended.
Photo courtesy Jeff Barge
In 1937, the FAP sent a dozen artists to the Alaskan wilderness with the intention that the works of art created would be part of a major exhibit that would tour the U.S. to promote tourism and industry in the region.
But after the artists returned to the lower 48, the planned exhibition never took place, and the Alaska Expedition paintings were dispersed. A small number ended up in the hands of art institutions and museums, but none having been identified as ending up in the hands of individual art collectors.
Among the FAP artists sent to Alaska to document the territory's growth were Karl Fortess, a Woodstock painter who later headed the WPA arts program in New York state, as well as Prescott M.M. Jones and Merlin Pollock.
Alaska didn't have the professional artists needed for the project, so they were imported from the Midwest, New York and New England, arriving by ship in Ketchikan in June 1937. They were paid a travel advance of $100 and $135 a month.
The artists toured the state, from the hustle of the fishing industry along the coast, the mines at Juneau and Fairbanks, to the farms in the Matanuska Valley, painting, sketching and taking photographs along the way.
The works they created were largely forgotten until the Anchorage Museum of History and Art began tracking them down in the late 1980s. The museum's WPA Alaska Art Project collection has currently grown from a half-dozen paintings to almost 1,800 prints, paintings, drawings and sketches.
"Curators at two Alaska museums have expressed an interest in having this painting donated to their collections," according to Jeff Barge, who identified the painting for what it was amongst those of a New York art collector and had it cleaned and restored. "I would love to see a local Alaskan art lover or corporation - anyone who could use a tax write-off, really -- could acquired this painting and donate it to their local museum. It really is a major piece of Alaska history."
The painting, which features an Alaskan fishing village at the break of dawn, with mountains and an Alaskan sky in the background, is apparently the finished work referred to in very similar sketches that the state history museum already has in its possession.
The painting hung, gathering soot and dust, for many years above a fireplace in a house near Woodstock, New York, the art colony where Karl Fortess lived during the last third of his life.
The FAP's Alaska Expedition artists spent most of their time in southeast Alaska and the interior. After arriving in Ketchikan, they divided into groups of three. One group went from Ketchikan to Wrangell to Petersburg before arriving in Juneau. They continued north to Cordova and Valdez, then up the Richardson Highway to Paxson. The group stayed two weeks in Fairbanks and hitched rides up the Steese Highway to see the gold dredging. They got as far as Circle.
The group eventually headed to what was then Mount McKinley National Park, where they stayed 10 days, before leaving for Anchorage, where two went on to Seward. Eventually, the entire group gathered back in Ketchikan for the trip to the lower 48 states.
Though a hardy group, the artists left Alaska in October of 1937, a month early, because winter was closing in. It isn't known how many works the artists completed. They were required to submit a list to the WPA central office. Some of them listed about 70 works, while one artist did not complete any until he returned to his studio.
"If not in a museum, this painting would be great for daily exhibition in an office lobby or hotel lobby, where residents and tourists could enjoy it on a daily basis," said Barge. "It would be a great find for the Alaskan tourism center."
Currently the original oil painting, "Alaskan Fishing Village Dawn, 1937," by Karl Fortess, is for sale on E-Bay by Jeff Barge. His starting bid is $5,000.
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