I first met Claudia McGehee through an email she sent me several years ago. She had attended the Rockwell Kent Distant Shores exhibit in Chicago in 2001, which visited Anchorage that same year. She was especially attracted to his artwork from Alaska based upon his 1918-19 stay on Fox Island in Resurrection Bay.
That gave her an idea. "I learned from the exhibit that Kent's young son Rocky had accompanied him and that immediately intrigued me."
One particular painting caught her eye. It showed Kent and his son hugging outside a log cabin with a bright blue September sky edged by crisp mountain peaks beyond. "The honesty and warmth and grandeur of the piece touched me on many levels," she wrote me, "as a parent, an artist and a naturalist."
While viewing Kent's paintings at the exhibit, she heard a teacher ask a student, "What do you think the two Kents did on bad weather days?" The student answered, "They played old-fashioned games, like checkers and chess." That got Claudia thinking.
Rocky's point of view
"In my mind, I saw the Kents clearly doing this homey activity in a little cabin in the middle of a big wilderness," she wrote, "and I knew I had to learn more and write about their time on Fox Island." So she decided to write and illustrate Kent's Fox Island story from Rocky's point of view.
Claudia is an award-winning author and illustrator of children's books who lives in Iowa City, Iowa. A native of Washington state, she earned degrees in archaeology and graphic design. She also studied natural history at Oxford University in England. She lives and works in a house on a hill with her husband, daughter and two studio cats.
Claudia illustrates scratchboard, a medium that looks a lot like wood cut in final appearance. Her book work includes three award-winning nonfiction picture books: "A Tallgrass Prairie Alphabet," "A Woodland Counting Book" and her upcoming book, "My Wilderness: An Alaskan Adventure."
She started her research into Rockwell Kent's Alaska adventure and came across my foreword to Kent's book, "Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska," and my articles in "The Kent Collector." She wrote me: "I've tried to imagine what Rocky felt during his stay on Fox Island, especially his feelings about living on the island itself." Claudia found Kent's book useful, but it lacked Rocky's voice. "In one of your articles, you mentioned interviewing Rocky," she wrote me. "I'm wondering if you wrote up this interview and if so, would you be willing to share it?'
In the early 1980s, a few years before he died, I met and interviewed Rocky at his home in Uxbridge, Massachusetts. Of course I'd share my interview notes, I answered -- thus began a correspondence that has lasted to the present. In fact, Claudia came to Seward in the spring of 2014 and we visited Fox Island together, wandering through the footprints of the old fox farm and stopping in reverence by the Kent cabin ruins.
Although most of her work on the book was finished by 2014, she wanted to visit Fox Island. "It was a significant moment to see the island for the first time as we left Seward," she recalled. "Somehow being on the same waters that Rocky and his father rowed across connected me over the years."
Over the years, Claudia had fact-checked many historical visual elements from early 20th century walking boots to the type of snowshoes Kent owned. I helped by sending her as much information as I could, including historical and current photos of the area, and copies of photos Kent took on Fox Island. "Artists like myself love to learn of other artist's processes," she wrote me, "so having your photos of the exact places where Kent was inspired will be very powerful." Claudia had many questions:
What wildflowers grow on Fox Island, she wanted to know?
Could they have seen the Northern Lights from there?
What steamship took them to Resurrection Bay?
Are there bears on Fox Island?
What indigenous group lived in the Resurrection Bay area?
Would Seward have wooden sidewalks at that era?
She faced the problem many writers face -- plenty of information but never enough space. One challenge of writing a children's book is that most are limited to 1,000-3,000 words. "I'm already regretting all the great stuff I won't have room for," she wrote.
Creating each illustration in the book was like solving a puzzle, Claudia wrote. "Questions of blade stroke, white space, face emotion, light source, landscape and historic detail all have to be answered," she reflected, "and this can be difficult and time consuming to solve. It's like entering a wilderness, many unknowns around each bend in the trail."
Her book is called "My Wilderness: An Alaskan Adventure," and will be available in March -- published by Little Bigfoot, an imprint of Sasquatch Books.
Doug Capra is a Seward writer whowrote forewords for two Rockwell Kent books, "Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska," and "Northern Christmas." His play about Rockwell Kent, "And Now the World Again," was staged as a reader's theater workshop production this fall.