Art and Nature Meet at the Copper River
By Deloris Tarzan Ament
A bald eagle soars over water. Black-tailed deer step daintily across a shallow ford. A sea otter, floating on its back, cradles a baby to drift past a flock of seabirds. Artists help us not only to see such moments but to linger in them.
Nearly everyone has a weakness for landscape and wildlife art. And no finer example of it has ever appeared in any Northwest museum than "Earthscape: Artists in Alaska's Copper River Delta," at the Frye Art Museum June 19 through September 5. The show evokes one of the nation's most magical settings.
The Copper River isn't the biggest of waterways, even in Alaska. It is only the fifth largest river system in our biggest, most northern state. But at 700,000 acres, the Copper River Delta, stretching 700 miles along Alaska's remote North Gulf coast, forms the largest contiguous wetland on the Pacific coast.
The mountains that cradle the Copper include nine of North America's 15 tallest peaks. The melt from their glaciers and ice fields combine with more than 100 inches of rain each year to produce the crown jewel of North American wetlands, a remnant of the temperate rain forest that once blanketed the Pacific Coast all the way from northern California up through British Columbia into Alaska.
The striking beauty of the Copper River Delta is a poignant evocation of how much has been lost. Moose, bear, wolves, sea lions, and other animals, fish and birds far outnumber the Delta's 5,600 human inhabitants. The region is especially famous for its fish. Ask any Seattle restaurateur; he or she will testify that Northwest diners happily pay a premium for Copper River sockeye, silver and king salmon.
You might suppose the rain forest and the wildlife would have been inspiration enough in themselves to convene an international corps of artists. But it didn't happen until a serious threat brought the area to world attention.
On Good Friday, March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez spilled oil into Prince William Sound, which adjoins the west edge of the Delta. In the intervening decade, only one species, the bald eagle, has fully recovered from the spill. The Copper River Delta escaped pollution, but narrowly. The miss was too close for anyone's comfort. One such spill in the Delta could contaminate it into paradise lost.
In recent years, environmentalism has taken its battles into courtrooms, to make its arguments with statistics and dry logic. But on this issue nothing speaks more persuasively than pictures. The image of a trio of black bear cubs scrambling up a mossy embankment is worth volumes of words in giving us direct insight into the rare, precious nature of what stands to be lost. The moment was captured by Russian artist Vadim Gorbatov, one of 22 artists from 11 nations who, as members of the Artists for Nature Foundation, gathered at the Copper River Delta to create art in appreciation of the land, its wildlife, and its human inhabitants.
"We found an almost untouched ecosystem of vast size, richness, variety and beauty," wrote Ysbrand Brouwers, the Foundation's artistic director. "For us, this was an unprecedented and unforgettable encounter." In the art which emerged from the project, mind and nature join in an expedition toward harmony.
The show contains everything from the vast to the miniscule. The silence of trackless distance is palpable in Alaskan artist David Rosenthal's view of the icy ridges of the Heney Mountain Range in winter. The painting is so moody and so deftly executed it is easily mistaken for a photograph. At the other end of the focus lies Scottish artist Kieth Brockie's pains taking botanical study of a lupine flower in a nest of marsh grass. "In Alaska every moment is the right time to paint," says Spanish artist Juan Varela Simo. Simo, a former director of the Spanish Ornithological Society, and holder of a masters degree in animal behavior from Madrid University, captured in watercolor the sight of a moose wading shoulder deep among yellow blossoms.
English artist Bruce Pearson went to Alaska with the hope of catching sight of sea otters, "possibly a good view through the telescope. In reality we boated into the middle of rafts of them, 100 or 200 at a time, almost able to touch them, swimming on their backs like little old men." In his watercolor study, a pair of otters nap as they float, with rounded bellies and expressions of deep content on their whiskered faces.
Pearson, who wrote and produced a television series on birds and their habitats, was equally intrigued by Muskeg bogs, where gurgling pools of water and stunted mountain hemlock look like natural bonsai gardens.
When Russian artist Victor Bakhtin painted the pounding surf surrounding harbor seals on the rugged outer coast of Hinchinbrook Island, at the western boundary of the Copper River Delta, he was so engrossed that he didn't notice the black bear that ambled up behind him, sat a while to watch him paint, then strolled off down the beach, leaving large tracks in the wet sand. The tracks washed away in the next tide, but the moment remains indelible in Bakhtin's memory.
When you visit the Frye to share these artists' visions of the Copper River Delta, don't be surprised if you emerge with the conviction there's something spiritual about the place. You won't be the first to sense it. For Gorbatov, head of graphics and illustration for Soviet Television, that feeling is embodied in the soaring eagle, whose piercing expression he nailed in the painting reproduced on the cover of the book which accompanies the exhibition (Alaska's Copper River Delta, University of Washington Press, $29.95). The author is marine biologist, designer, and environmental activist Riki Ott, who explores the ecology of the Delta season by season. Ott serves as executive director of the Copper River Watershed Project, a consortium of business, government, scientific, environmental, and Native American interests formed to foster sustainable development in the Delta.
DELORIS TARZAN AMENT, is a freelance writer about art, design, restaurants, and travel. She was Art Critic for the Seattle Times for over twenty years.
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