When artist John Fehringer first arrived in Juneau in 1980 he was quickly captivated, like so many others, by the romance of Alaska.
“I was 25 years old,” Fehringer said, “and this was the adventure of my life.” What Fehringer didn't realize in those early days was just how much aviation would come to be part of his new home and the art he would make there.
Fehringer is most widely known for the eye-catching labels of the Alaskan Brewing Company that carry his images on their bottles. Capturing many aspects of Alaska life from eagles and bears to boats and outdoor sports -- even surfing -- the labels stand out due to Fehringer’s distinctive use of light. His favorite time of day is the hour before sunset when the light is “low and sharp."
“In the middle of the day,” he explained in a recent phone conversation, “there is no drama, no contrast.” Perfect light is what Fehringer seeks and it was light that brought him to his first aviation painting, "Descent:"
I was not an aviation person but I saw planes all over Juneau. They are everywhere -- part of the uniqueness of living in Alaska. In Southeast there are all these planes on pontoons that I couldn’t help but notice. I had taken some photos of a plane coming in one day and when I got them back I knew I had something. “Descent” became my first aviation piece and it sold out in a couple of months. So from then on, I started painting more aircraft.
What Fehringer did not expect was the positive reception his new subject received from pilots who began attending his shows and seeking him out to discuss his technique. All too often, though, he found he could not answer their more technical questions. Determined to be as accurate as possible, and able to engage with his new customers, he took an unusual step and enrolled in ground school in Juneau. He followed that up by later obtaining a private pilot’s license in Arizona. “Now,” he said, “I could talk about flying and understand better what the pilots were saying to me.”
“Descent” has been followed by many other aviation paintings including “Early Arrival,” “Deliverance” and “Play Misty.” His most recent aircraft painting is “Many Happy Returns,” which includes his first wheeled aircraft. “It felt empty at first,” he says, “without the pontoons. I was not sure if the light and the drama would come through with all that space.” He wanted the challenge though, and possibilities of a different type of aircraft.
Fehringer is quick to make clear he is an artist first and foremost, and has very low flight time. And though he works hard to be accurate about the mechanics of flying, his paintings are, more than anything, just another step in his continued effort to capture the spirit of adventure that impressed him so long ago when he arrived in Alaska.
“There was no adventure where I came from,” he explains. “I paint these aircraft because of the beauty and romance I see behind them. They have become characters to me in the story I am trying to tell of Alaska.”
Many artists have come to Alaska and contributed to the always-evolving vision of the state and its singular place in American mythology. What John Fehringer continues to see is that first moment when he walked off the ferry in Juneau and found something his life had been missing. That moment of awe is what he hopes to share in every painting, he said. Fortunately for pilots, his landscape includes the sight of aircraft winging their way through some of the best flying in the world and always with spectacular light on their side.
John Fehringer works with an airbrush and opaque watercolor (gouache) to create his original paintings. You can find more of his work at his website where prints, art cards, etc. are for sale. His work can also be found for sale in Annie Kaill's gallery and Taku Graphics, both in Juneau.