According to the Alaska tourism division, at least 40 brown bears and 80 black bears live within the city limits of Anchorage. They lurk in parklands, commute along greenbelts and occasionally swing through built-up neighborhoods.
It's fitting, then, that Anchorage — the City of the Bears — is the site for several big art and science events this summer that focus on genus Ursus.
The summer of bears started with a month-long exhibit at the International Gallery of Contemporary Art, which opened on Friday, June 3. "Bears! Contemporary Images of the Ursidae" is a group show that includes work by Alaskans along with that of several internationally noted contemporary wildlife artists.
Douglas Miller of Kansas, for example, is known for depictions of animals that combine classic detailed illustration with sketch lines, suggesting the fleeting nature of our encounters with wildlife and our incomplete knowledge of their lives. His mixed media pieces include such unexpected elements as mascara and coffee stains. For his contribution to the show, "In the undone," he adds dirt to the pencil and watercolor essay.
Peter Gullerud of California is a former illustrator with Disney and Warner Bros., whose paintings often show animals projecting an anthropomorphic personality. His piece in the show is titled "Smokey Before the Orphanage" and imagines the poster bear for fire prevention with his mother prior to the forest fire that left him burned and abandoned, to be rescued by firefighters.
A gargoyle bear cast in sandstone by Scottish sculptor Philip Obermarck is also part of the out-of-state submissions to the show.
Alaska artists with work in "Bears!" include designer Holly Nordlum of Kotzebue and sculptor Jeff Dean of Homer. Steve Gray has a mechanical puppet bear that bares its fangs and, similarly, Susan Joy Share has created a kind of greeting card that reveals a bear's snapping jaws when you open it.
The biggest thing in the show is as 82-inch-wide acrylic painting of a polar bear strolling though a North Slope settlement, "Ursus maritimus Enormis," by Austin Parkhill, recipient of last year's Connie Boochever Artist Fellowship from the Alaska State Council on the Arts.
Sandra Talbot, a biologist with the U.S. Geographic Survey in Anchorage and also a member artist of IGCA, came up with the idea for the show and is curating it.
"The whole idea is to celebrate bears," she said. "They're a big deal in Alaska, but also elsewhere."
Artists and scientists both tend to think about possibilities, she said. She has degrees in both art and science, for instance. Two other USGA staff members with similar credentials asked to have work included in the show when they learned about it.
Talbot conceived of the show in conjunction with the 24th conference of the International Association for Bear Research and Management, IBA, which will run through June 15. More than 400 bear experts from around the world are expected to attend the sessions at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center.
Serious shop talk will occupy the bulk of the conference — subjects like polar bear tracking technology, toxicology and genomics, Talbot's area of expertise. But several events are also open to the public.
There will be free bear-safety workshops for adults and kids, a sale of books about bears and general-interest talks for the public by specialists from around the world on subjects from polar bears to pandas.
There are even daily bear spray demonstrations on the Delaney Park Strip.
While the IBA conference is underway, a dozen life-size bear forms will be delivered to Anchorage for a citywide art project hosted by the Anchorage Downtown Partnership. The forms will be presented to artists and groups to decorate as they desire and then set up at locations from the Visit Anchorage offices downtown to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage. It's a lot like the "Parade of Salmon" event held in Anchorage in previous years, except with critters from the other end of the food chain.
The forms weigh about 100 pounds each and come in three poses: standing and looking, walking nonchalantly and head-down-get-outta-my-way. Expect to see them show up around the Fourth of July in places that include the Alaska Botanical Garden, McGinley's Pub, Alaska Public Lands Information Center, Salmon Berry Tours and All About You Medical Spa.
That's a pretty wide spectrum of public agencies, nonprofit groups and private businesses joining in the city's very own bear party.
"All kinds of people have all kinds of different reasons," Talbot said. "But the interest in bears is huge, both with scientists and the public in general. People are just fascinated by them."
BEARS! CONTEMPORARY IMAGES OF THE URSIDAE will be on display at the International Gallery of Contemporary Art, 427 D St., through the month of June.
THE INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON BEAR RESEARCH AND MANAGEMENT will include several open-to-the-public events, including:
– Bear spray demonstration and training, 5:30 p.m. June 13-15, Delaney Park Strip, Ninth Avenue and G Street. Free.
– Bear aware clinic, 2 p.m. June 14, Dena'ina Center. Free.
– Bear aware information for kids and families, 5:30-7 p.m. June 13-15, Dena'ina Center. Free.
– Richard Nelson, Alaskan anthropologist, public talk, 7 p.m. June 13, Dena'ina Center. Free.
– Steve Amstrup, chief scientist for Polar Bears International, 8 p.m. June 13, Dena'ina Center. Free.
– Dan Bigley, bear attack survivor, co-author of "Beyond the Bear," 7 p.m. June 14, Dena'ina Center. Free.
– John Hechtel, retired bear biologist on bear safety, 8 p.m. June 14, Dena'ina Center. Free.
– Dave Garshelis, Minnesota bear researcher, 7 p.m. June 15, Dena'ina Center. Free.
– Hui Wan, panda bear researcher, 7:45 p.m., June 15, Dena'ina Center. Free.
– Todd Atwood, polar bear researcher, 8:15 p.m., June 15, Dena'ina Center. Free.