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Halibut Cove artist Diana Tillion dies after battle with cancer

Diana Rutzebeck Tillion, a unique Alaska artist, died at her home in Halibut Cove on Wednesday night. She was 81 years old.

Tillion was born June 1, 1928, in Paradise, Calif. She came to Alaska in 1939, when her mother and stepfather worked at Independence Gold Mine near Palmer. In 1942, the family moved to Homer, where she graduated from high school in 1948.

Even when she was a teen, her talent was recognized. She was paid $100 -- a stupendous sum given the time and place -- to paint a mural of Homer in the old Yah Sure Club saloon.

No road reached the lower Kenai Peninsula at that time. She studied art by correspondence course and later left to study with teachers in New York, London and Paris.

In 1952, she married Clem Tillion, a fisherman whom she had met in 1945. They lived in Halibut Cove, on the south side of Kachemak Bay, and had four children: William, Marian, Martha and Vincent.

With statehood, in 1958, Clem Tillion became active in politics. He served in the state Legislature, both House and Senate, for many years and became a major power broker in the 1980s.

Also in 1958, Diana Tillion's art took an unexpected turn when she began painting pictures with ink from octopuses found in the lagoon near her home. She worked in a variety of media, including sculpture, but in a 1969 letter to the Anchorage Times noted that she was "the only professional artist using this ink."

In that letter, she praised the "mood depth" of the octopus ink and described how she had learned how to apply it in her paintings. "The ink is totally indelible," she said, "so the smooth wash effect in the background is done only by the use of a fluid wash."

She was fascinated by how the color of the sepia ink shifted from animal to animal. "Sometimes it's purple, sometimes it's greenish, sometimes it's gold,"

She created an art gallery in Halibut Cove that drew visitors across the bay and helped turn the isolated hamlet into a haven for Alaska artists over the ensuing decades.

She received a solo art show at the Anchorage Museum in 1971 and her work was shown around the country. She was also a writer, a member of the Alaska Poetry Society and the Alaska president of the National League of American Presswomen.

She served as the vice president of the Alaska Council on the Arts in the 1960s and taught art for 10 years at Homer Community College.

In addition to her art, visitors to her home and studio admired the efficiency with which she managed her remote household and how she comfortably merged the roles of commercial fisherwoman, political wife, wilderness mom and recognized leader in the arts community. She credited her positive attitude to "30 years of constant work -- and a damn good library."

"Half of me isn't an artist," she told the Daily News in a 1988 interview. "I love my family. I love having children. I love Clem. I love having a home ... As far as I'm concerned, I have it all."

She had battled cancer in recent years. Her husband said that she finished her last painting eight days before her death.

A celebration of her life will be held at her home on what would have been her 82nd birthday, June 1, 2010.

Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.