Thursday, March 28, 2013

Ghosts from the Past

I finished one of my finest paintings in the dawning years of the 1970s.  It captured a significant moment in my budding romance with Alaska.  The piece depicted a herd of caribou migrating single file across a wintery mountainside.  It spoke of wild places, the rugged north and the endurance of one of my favorite animals. 

Its inspiration came in October, 1965.  Several forces had converged to bring me to Alaska and hunting ranked high on the list.  Driving down from Fairbanks we spent the day along the Denali Highway, a 135 mile gravel road on the south side of the Alaska Range.  We filled the short daylight hours glassing mountain slopes and valleys and hiking across the frozen tundra.  All we found were the sinuous trails of migrating caribou in a world made white by earlier snows.  Now another storm took aim at the Denali. 

Finally, as the snow -- that would close the highway for the winter that night -- began in earnest, as dusk descended to enclose our world in the cocoon of our old Nash Rambler, we began our own migration home.  That’s when we saw them -- near enough to thrill yet too far to reach before darkness.  It was a surreal scene -- the caribou herd trudging single file across that naked mountainside, the white manes of the bulls and the arching curves of their antlers almost lost in the blowing snow.  Here was everything Alaska stood for -- a barren seemingly dead world suddenly teeming with life.  A place where surprise and awe could be just around any corner.  America  may have lost the vast herds of free-roaming bison, but we still have the caribou.  Their future is in our hands.

That image etched itself in my heart, an image I finally captured on canvas that long-ago day we lived in Anchorage.  As my finest accomplishment I wanted to give it to my mother for Christmas -- to thank her for the gift she had given me -- one I treasure to this day -- a simple wooden easel, really just a box, filled with oil painting supplies.  Mom lived in upstate New York so I packed the painting up for the postal service and with a prayer, insured my creation.

I called mom on Christmas, “how did you like your gift?”   “I loved it,” came her reply.  Now, my mom had countless virtues and one bad habit.  She told you what she thought you wanted to hear, not necessarily the truth.  In reality she never received that painting.  Months later I visited her and looking around her apartment asked where it was.  “What painting?”  Alas, I found that I could only track insured mail for a year.  That year had passed.  

                         Spring Comes to the High Country    18 x 24 inches    Alkyd on canvas

This past winter I painted Spring Comes to the High Country, an abstracted piece completed by playing with shapes and patterns in an earlier plein air painting.  I painted the original a couple of years ago while camped on top of a knob in southcentral Alaska.  With the memory of that day so long ago still yearning to come out, I gave the new version one last touch -- a herd of caribou marching across a ridge -- much farther away than in the original painting, certainly not the main subject, but still a tiny ghost from my past.

                                            Spring Comes to the High Country Detail


Susan Christensen said...

This is an amazing story, which really touches my heart, Don. The painting is just wonderful, and what a fine place to remember that magic memory of the caribou. -sus

Don and Karen Cornelius Artwork said...

Thanks, Sus: The blog is proving to be a wonderful way to dredge up old memories.