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Byron Birdsall, renowned and prolific watercolor artist, dies at 78

Byron Birdsall, one of Alaska's most renowned watercolorists, died Sunday at his home on Whidbey Island at age 78. His wife, Billie, said the cause of death was heart failure.

Birdsall was known for his watercolors depicting Alaska scenes, including panoramic landscapes.

His output was prolific during his 50 years as a professional painter. Tennys Owens, owner of Artique Ltd., and Birdsall's exclusive representative for 30 years, said the number of paintings he produced in that time was somewhere in the thousands. He embraced prints early on, making his works affordable, accessible and ubiquitous throughout the city.

"He was so in love with what he did, and he did it so well," Owens said in a phone interview Monday. "It was just so joyful to him."

Artist Byron Birdsall, photographed at the Hotel Captain Cook on Aug. 5, 2014. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Birdsall, born in Arizona but raised in California, moved to Alaska in 1975. The son of a minister, he spent his early years learning to draw as a way to pass the time during his father's church sermons, according to a 1995 Anchorage Daily News article.

He taught history in California for six years before leaving to travel extensively with his first wife, Lynn, in Africa and South America. The couple and their son, Joshua, later moved to Alaska where Birdsall took a job at an ad agency. Their daughter, Courtenay, was born soon after.

Birdsall came to Alaska at the height of the pipeline boom and found a market for his art. He soon quit his job at the ad agency and began painting full time.

"Alaskans love Alaska," he told the Anchorage Daily News in 1995. "That's what they want to buy."

Owens said Birdsall had remarkable range, moving easily between portraits and landscapes, watercolor and oils. His paintings were often inspired by his international travels. He was drawn to watercolors, Owens said, because they were generally smaller and faster to produce.

Birdsall's output had not slowed in recent years, despite his being in ill health. He held an art show at the downtown Anchorage gallery in November.

Birdsall's first wife, Lynn, died in 1998 from cancer. He married his college sweetheart, Billie, 17 years ago. They split their time between Anchorage and Whidbey Island in Washington state. His wife said an unfinished painting sat at his work station waiting to be completed Monday.

Billie Birdsall said in a phone interview that her husband was inspired by both the scenic beauty of Alaska and its people.

"I think some people just adopt Alaska," she said.

“A bird in a (snowy) cage,” by Byron Birdsall. Courtesy Artique Ltd.

Birdsall's works were also a staple at nonprofit fundraisers and other community events around the city. He contributed a print celebrating the Anchorage centennial in 2014 and a "Spirit of Rondy" poster celebrating George Attla and the 75th anniversary of the Fur Rendezvous. One of his famous nighttime landscapes, with a yellow moon rising over snow-covered mountains, is available as an heirloom marriage certificate from the state of Alaska.

Longtime friend and city ombudsman Darrel Hess met Birdsall 20 years ago when he was a store manager at the Jewel Lake Carrs.

He said Birdsall would come to the store to get photographs developed, many of which he would use as inspiration for his art. Hess said they struck up a friendship over their shared love of history.

Hess described Birdsall as a "gentleman" who never spoke ill of others and constantly donated his time and art to community events and individuals.

"I think I'm a better ombudsman because of him," Hess said Monday. "I learned to be even-keeled and even-tempered from him. He never had a bad thing to say about this world. He was old-fashioned in many respects."

Owens believes that part of Birdsall's success was related to his ability to connect with people.

"You cannot really separate him from his art," Owens said. "They love his art because of him, they love him because of his art. His work is not for everybody, but the thing I find is that the other everybody still loves Byron Birdsall."

Billie Birdsall said details of an Alaska memorial service were still pending Monday.

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