One of Fur Rendezvous' biggest events in terms of the number of people involved and the amount of dollars changing hands kicks off today. And it has a new name.
The Charlotte Jensen Native Arts Market will open at 10 a.m. today and run through Sunday at the Dimond Center. Hundreds of vendors -- not just from Anchorage, but from all across Alaska -- are on hand with ivory carvings, sealskin mukluks, fox fur hats, bead jewelry, grass baskets and other crafts. More mainstream items like paintings and T-shirt prints are also found among the 200 or so tables that fill the corridors of Dimond Center.
But it's the combined quality, variety and amount of the traditional art in this show that makes it perhaps the best emporium of Alaska Native art in the world. Master artists like Alutiiq carver Peter Lind, whose exquisite replicas are coveted by major collectors and museums, can be found next to makers of dolls or yo-yos who are little known outside their home towns. In some cases, villagers throw together so that one of them can bring craftwork by several people to the big market in Anchorage.
The new name is a tribute to the late veteran Rondy volunteer who helped get the Native arts and crafts show on its feet at its inception. Moreover, she is credited as playing a key roll in rescuing the entire festival from financial collapse in 2006.
Charlotte Jensen was born in Ely, Minn., in 1938. She became a nurse and came to Anchorage in 1963 to work at the old Alaska Native Hospital downtown.
A whirlwind of organizational force, Jensen was the quintessential super-volunteer in everything from political elections to homemaking groups, creating bazaars and forming support networks for amputees.
She first joined the Rondy board in the 1970s and over the years sold pins, managed the Rondy Trade Show, trained incoming volunteers and served as chairman of the Native Arts Market, which she listed as her favorite responsibility. She earned the Vern Johnson Award for volunteer work and, in 1996, was made Lady Trapper.
But it takes more than enthusiasm for a festival to flourish. As Anchorage grew and diversions became more numerous, the Rondy began to fade from the prominent position it had held in the early days.
By the summer of 2006, the Rondy was in dire straits with more than $110,000 in debt. Finger-pointing and frustration were rife.
At about this time, Jensen became president of the board of Greater Anchorage Inc., the nonprofit that sponsors the Rondy. In a Daily News' commentary, she detailed how options had been explored, staff cut, outlets closed, events curtailed and how collaborative efforts with other organizations had failed to materialize.
But, having laid out the grim facts, she then drew a line in the snow. Rondy would not die on her watch, she said. "Fur Rendezvous is a vital part of Alaska's history and tradition."
She outlined adjustments the festival was making to keep itself relevant and GAI's program to pay off the debt.
"Char was an integral part of Rondy's recent return to success," reads the dedication to her in this year's Rondy program book. "She had faith that the festival was important to too many people and that Alaskans wouldn't let it disappear."
After her term and well into her long battle with rheumatoid arthritis, she continued to be the woman Rondy staff called for advice and expertise.
When the disease finally made it impossible for her to drive herself, her husband, John, became the chauffeur so that she could still attend meetings.
Jensen died in Anchorage on Dec. 12, 2010.
But that didn't get her family off the hook.
Last night John and his son Michael were busy setting up the lines of tables at the Dimond Center. They'll be there to direct the artists as they come in and to clean up after the last piece leaves on Sunday afternoon.
"My dad's basically been at Mom's side for a long time through Rondy," said Michael. "I take a week off and volunteer down there."
THE ANCHORAGE FUR RENDEZVOUS CHARLOTTE JENSEN NATIVE ARTS MARKET Takes place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and continues daily through 5 p.m. Sunday at the Dimond Center.
By MIKE DUNHAM