Artists find their niche and a sweet life with lots of wildlife

TALKEETNA: Gallery sets its own pace when the fish run.

May 22, 2010 

Scattered across the state in or near the tiny towns that host what even long-time Anchorage folk romantically think of as the "real" Alaska life, one finds representatives of one of the last remaining institutions of independent creativity and entrepreneurship: the out-of-town art gallery.

You need to keep your eyes open to spot 'em. And you have to be ready to step on the brakes -- not always the first impulse in the middle of a long drive on a road that seems to be going nowhere.

These are not your city art stores, but places with their own pace, their own aesthetic, their own relationship to the occasional client who drops by and the abundant wilderness that surrounds them.

Places like Wildlife North Art Gallery on Talkeetna Spur Rd, 110 miles north of Anchorage and maybe four miles south of Talkeetna. There's a big sign on your right as you head toward town, but turning onto the narrow dirt road that plunges right into a wall of boreal birch requires a minor act of faith.

A short distance in, however, you'll see the clearing where David and Barbara Totten have their house and studio.

The studio, which doubles as the gallery, is a fairly new cabin made from locally-milled spruce logs. It's still somewhat under construction. A chain saw sits on the ground next to one wall. The porch isn't anywhere near finished, but the dog sled that Dave made and used for years is mounted there.

So is the posted notice, "Business hours subject to change during fishing season."

If no one's there, wait a moment. Bonney the dog and one of the Tottens will pop up shortly to let you into the neat, well-lit shop with a plywood floor -- "We're going to get a rug this year, maybe," said Dave -- and bright paintings on the wall.

Most of the stuff is Dave's. "I liked to draw when I was a kid," he said. "But I quit when I went into the Navy in 1955."

Dave was born in New Jersey, raised in Maine, studied engineering after his discharge in 1958, worked on NASA's Apollo Project and taught at a community college in Southern California before retiring and coming to Alaska in 1991. By then he'd taken up painting and drawing again.

He opened his first art shop, Willow Wildlife, in the Caswell Lakes area in 1992. In 2000, he and Barbara took out a lease on an old cabin in Talkeetna and moved the business there. Three years ago he started work on the present gallery.

"I don't think we'll be doing any more moving," said Barbara.

Dave's preferred medium is pastels, plus a few pen and ink or pencil drawings.

"I used to do oils," he said. "But I was so exasperated. I didn't like the effects I was getting. It was too hard. I like the softer look of the pastels."

His preferred subject is wildlife. The gallery is full of realistic depictions of bears, wolves, eagles, chickadees, Dall sheep basking in the sun near Mount McKinley.

A few of the pictures show people, fishermen, mushers, including a portrait of Earl Norris, a long-time friend of the Tottens.

Some of the best paintings are of sled dogs. "We used to have a team," Dave said. "Mostly for recreational use but some racing too."

Now it's just Bonney.

In addition to the paintings there's some jewelry made by Barbara and note cards made from Dave's paintings. And lots of prints.

Barbara makes the giclee prints, both for her husband and other artists, in the main house. Dave makes the frames. "We do it all," he said.

They travel to a few shows in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Elmendorf. On summer weekends they have a tent at the open air market in Talkeetna.

Dave spends much of his time taking photos that he will use to paint from later on. Fishing brown bears, for instance, were at McNeil River. The backgrounds are often from the Denali area, closer to home, like the stunning view of Mount McKinley at "Oh-my-God! Hill," just down the road from his place.

The animals in the paintings -- except for the polar bears -- are all critters that Dave has had the opportunity to encounter and observe without going too far from his unfinished porch.

"This is the neat thing about Alaska," he said, sweeping his arm around the room past the moose, bear, wolves, sheep and eagles. "All of this stuff is living around here!"


Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.

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