Looking at a single tree, a painter sees Alaska in a new way

David Pettibone came to Alaska looking for one thing and found something else that was more profound. It is his gift to see beyond what he expects to see.

For generations, painters and artists of all kinds have projected their fantasies on Alaska. The place is so big and inspiring it is difficult to avoid stereotypes of grandeur or drama.

But Pettibone, by painting what he truly observes, has created something startlingly new. In his current exhibit at the Anchorage Museum, I saw a place I've always known and suddenly realized how beautiful it really is.

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Pettibone's Alaska dream began in Brooklyn. A well-trained oil painter seasoned in the art world, he wanted to paint living things, to create images that included life and death. He felt closest to his goal while walking his dog in a city park.

A photo in The New York Times of Inupiaq whaling in Utqiaġvik, then called Barrow, brought him north. The picture showed a bowhead whale being carried by construction equipment. It seemed like magical realism had come to life.

"It kind of hit all the bases," Pettibone said. "Just the idea of this giant sea creature on a front-end loader—to me, at first, that kind of fit the bill."

Getting an invitation to go to the community — and finding a way to earn his keep while there — took a lot of time and persistence, but in 2013 Pettibone spent seven months in Utqiaġvik driving a van, giving painting lessons, and learning everything he could about subsistence whaling.

Through visits to whale camp, prayer meetings and celebrations, and especially his many times seeing the community butcher whales, Pettibone began to appreciate the meaning of the harvest and how it fulfills many needs for the Inupiat. The true picture was much deeper than the one he had sought.

"It is the whale giving itself, the sacrifice of one life for another, and I think it's the butchering that really conveys that, when the community comes together," he said.

Two enormous tryptics convey those moments, looming as if life-size. I've been to whale hunts, but when I first saw one of these paintings, my spine tingled. The images are clear, bright and accurate, like photographs, but somehow have the substance and texture of being present.

Pettibone said that feeling is why he paints. The paint is as real as the thing in the picture.

"The visceral experience of paint goes hand in hand with harvesting an animal," he said. "I wouldn't have been able to do that painting if I didn't have the opportunity to help butcher that animal."

One of the paintings hung in an exhibit of Arctic visions at the museum, but now they lean, unsold, on the wall of a studio, perhaps too raw for a Native corporation office. They should be acquired by a museum as fundamental Alaskan masterpieces.

Pettibone's next project brought his observation to Anchorage. For a year he painted a single cottonwood tree in the Eagle River Valley, producing more than 70 canvases now hanging in the Brian Davies Gallery on the top floor of the Anchorage Museum.

Walking into the gallery is like entering a grove of trees, but closer examination continuously yields more information. One old, broken tree, seen from every angle, at every season, in all light and weather conditions, ultimately shows the diverse moods of the place where we live.

Pettibone hiked to the tree day after day, painting exactly what he saw. The falling rain and snow textured the paintings and the swarming mosquitoes made lumps on them. On subzero days, the paint would hardly move.

Four images, one for each season, each bring together six canvases in composites standing as high as a real tree. Since each of the six components was painted on a different day, the constructed tree shows the changing light and weather, making a portrait that includes the dimension of time.

I never before appreciated the varieties of Anchorage's unique quality of light.

Again, the paint itself brings the experience to life. From a distance, Pettibone's images are strikingly real, but up close the brush strokes seem lazy—as a musical metaphor, I thought of Keith Richard's guitar playing, always hitting the right note as if by chance.

The final tree, in the spring, is the best.

"I never really did the bark justice," Pettibone said, but allowed, "I get closer."

He is young and seems bonded to Alaska now. It is exciting to have this youth, skill and energy invested here. I will look forward to what his observation teaches me next about the place I've always lived.

The exhibit "A Year with a Tree" continues until January 15. Canvases are for sale through the museum gift shop, with 10 percent of proceeds going to the Eagle River Nature Center.

This column has been updated from an earlier version. Pettibone was present at the butchering of many whales, but assisted only once. Also, his time with the whalers was in 2013, not 2015 as previously stated.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.