Editor's note: Anchorage Museum of History and Art generously referred Resource Library Magazine to the author and copyright holder of the following catalogue essay. Anchorage Museum of History and Art will present John Hoover: Art and Life, a retrospective exhibition, May 12 through September 29, 2002. This biographical essay is reprinted with the permission of the author, Julie Decker, who may be reached at (907) 272-1489. If you have questions regarding the exhibition or the lavishly illustrated catalogue, please contact the Anchorage Museum of History and Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

John Hoover: Art and Life

by Julie Decker

 

Beginnings

John Jay Hoover was born on October 13, 1919, in Cordova, Alaska. Hoover's father, Jay Mervin Hoover (known as "Jake"), was born in 1862 to a family of Dutch ancestry. Jake was an accomplished musician who earned his living in Montana as a meat hunter for the railroad. Jake was also a prospector, and when he discovered an emerald mine and sold it for a handsome profit, he followed his dream to move to Alaska -- a place where many went to seek their fortune.

In this rugged land, Jake Hoover met Annie Serakovikoff. Annie was of Aleut descent, born in 1873 in Unga, one of the Shumagin Islands southwest of the Alaska Peninsula. The descendants of the migrants who settled in Alaska, known collectively as Alaska Natives, are not a single, homogeneous group. They are broadly separated into Aleuts, Eskimos, and Indians, belonging to more than twenty language and culture groups. Within those groups, Alaska Natives have particular village and tribal affiliations and each group identifies a different geographic region where their ancient ancestors lived.

The Russians were the first newcomers of the modern era, drawn to Alaska in the mid-1700s in pursuit of sea otters and their valuable pelts. The Aleut suffered the most from Russian contact, first subjugated, then decimated by disease, and ultimately inculcated into Russian culture through the efforts of Russian Orthodox missionaries. The Russians quickly depleted the sea otter population in the Aleutian Islands, on which the Aleut depended for food, and soon moved eastward for more pelts. The Russian legacy throughout Alaska included smallpox and venereal disease, both of which wreaked havoc on Native populations.

The Russian presence in the Aleutians was still dominant when Annie Serakovikoff was growing up. Annie's father died when she was a child, and she was sent to an orphanage in Unalaska run by Russian priests. The priests loaned her to another family to do menial tasks. At the age of seventeen, she heard that her mother was on Kodiak Island and sick with tuberculosis. She went to Kodiak to care for her, but her mother died later that same year. Instead of returning to Unalaska, Annie fled to Katalla, Alaska, where she met Jake.

Jake and Annie Hoover lived at Yakataga Beach, near Katalla, for several years where they cradled gold. Jake also worked as a fisherman. In 1919 the couple moved to Cordova so that Annie could give birth to son John, their third child, in a Cordova hospital. Shortly after John's birth, they moved back to Katalla. John Hoover was the youngest of Jake and Annie's three children. He had an older sister, Violet, and a younger sister, Elenore.

In 1924, when John was five years old, Jake and Annie once again returned to Cordova, but shortly after the move, Jake died of appendicitis while working on a mail boat in the Gulf of Alaska. Annie supported the family by working in fisheries, mining camps, laundries, and as a cook in oil fields, often preparing meals for more than eighty men. Annie could tan all types of animal skins and was an accomplished taxidermist as well as a talented musician. Annie lived in the same tiny home during all her years in Cordova, until her death at age eighty-seven. It had been partially built and repaired by Jake with scraps left over from the construction of Cordova's noted Windsor Hotel.

Hoover's mother kept John's hair long when he was young -- a custom that had been developed more than one hundred years before to disguise Aleut boys as girls so they would not be conscripted for hunting by the Russian fur traders. Hoover did not have his hair cut until he was five years old. He recounts the ancient threat of the Russian fur traders in this way:

Russian fur traders, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, killed many Aleut people in their greed for the quick profit they could reap from selling the sea otter pelts to Chinese lords. During the period, mothers of boys disguised their sons as girls to save them from conscription into the Hunters of the Sea Otter Death Syndrome.

The city of Cordova, where the Hoover children were raised, was not a place concerned with tradition. Rather, it was a "boom town," with new wealth and a diverse mix of people and industries. Located on Prince William Sound in the Gulf of Alaska, southeast of Anchorage, Cordova is today a small fishing town, but it was once the terminus of the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad, which carried copper ore two hundred miles from the Kennecott mine in the Chitina Valley to tidewater. The building of the mine brought two or three thousand people to Cordova, making it Alaska's largest city during the period in which Hoover grew up.

While the railroad and mining provided work for many residents, many others found work fishing, including Native Alaskans, particularly the Eyak Indians -- the earliest people to settle in the Cordova area. Fishing also provided work for both Jake and Annie Hoover, with Jake working the boats while Annie worked in canneries. By the 1880s, several canneries had opened in the region to take advantage of the gulf's abundant salmon runs. Cordova flourished as docks and tramways were built on Eyak Lake to transport the fish.

When the Kennecott mine closed in 1938, about three hundred railroad jobs ended, and many of these workers left Cordova for such larger cities as Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau. While some feared Cordova would eventually become completely devastated, many residents remained and Cordova turned from mining to fishing as its primary industry. In 1938, more than half of the approximately one thousand fishermen employed in the Prince William Sound region were Cordova residents. Cordova-area canneries employed about fifteen hundred people, more than a third of whom were from Cordova or nearby Native villages. Cordovans directly employed in the fishing industry totaled about five times the number of railroad employees (Nielsen 1989, 48). Longtime Cordova fisherman Jack DeVille said people stayed in Cordova after the railroad closed because "when the tide was out, the table was set here. You had clams, you had crab, you had halibut, and you had salmon. You had ducks and geese.... This is subsistence.... ."

Hoover's memories of Cordova include restaurants, bars, roller rinks, tennis courts, and philharmonic orchestras. He remembers it was "like living in New York, only smaller." Although Cordova had a Bureau of Indian Affairs school (a government-sponsored school, like many others set up in remote territories, as part of an effort to assimilate indigenous populations), Hoover was educated at public schools, and he also attended the Presbyterian Church and music lessons. The Hoover family was quite musical: Elenore, the youngest girl, played the violin, Jake and Annie played the fiddle and harmonica -- at home and at dances in Katalla. Violet, the eldest, sang ballads and played the guitar. Hoover himself played the piano by ear and wrote music and lyrics.

Hoover says the only thing that got him through school was mathematics. He excelled in math, but he also enjoyed art, taking classes in drawing, sketching, and composition. In grade school, Hoover frequently won American Legion poster contests, held every spring in Cordova. During these elementary years Hoover first experimented with oil paintings, imitating his sister Violet, a talented artist who excelled at sketching. "I thought it was a form of magic," recalled Hoover.

Outside school, Hoover recalls bird watching along the Copper River, still famous today for its exotic range of species. Hunting also was a hobby, as were skiing and skating. Most activities centered on Eyak Lake, the focal point of the town. Natural gas from the lake created large gas "pockets," some of them five and six feet in diameter. Hoover and his friends would skate along the lake on winter nights and poke holes in the pockets with small nails. They would light the gas, and watch the pockets burn all night long.

While seemingly a normal and blissful early childhood, Hoover's early years were not without challenges and tension. His Aleut heritage made him an outsider at times, despite his mother's efforts, and despite the diverse population of Cordova:

I was raised in an urban setting in the territory of Alaska, under martial law. Indians were ordered by the federal government to be assimilated. English was the only language allowed in the schools. Bigotry and prejudice were prevalent. My father was called squaw man. Cordova was the hub of activity created by the railroad serving the copper mines. It was a bonanza for everyone. Every nationality was represented there with their own culture -- foods, restaurants, lifestyles -- everyone was welcome there but the Indian. My Aleut mother, in a desperate attempt to make us acceptable, raised us as white. The town had an Indian School but somehow she kept us in the public school. There were some that questioned our presence, but eventually we were accepted.

From the ages of seven to fourteen, Hoover earned wages as a boxer, at monthly smoker fights in Cordova. He also fought outside the ring in local youth gang wars:

While my sister attended orchestra rehearsals, I expressed myself by taking part in gang wars. These weren't really racial conflicts, although there was plenty of animosity toward non-whites and that increased the tension. As a U.S. territory under federal law, federal marshals administered Alaska. They were power moguls who intimidated the Natives, invaded their homes, and pillaged their art until there was nothing left of the culture.

By the age of fifteen, Hoover was earning money fishing and by the age of twenty-one, he had switched from smoker fights to playing drums in Cordova bars.

Art ultimately led Hoover back to his Aleut heritage, but his development as an artist began slowly. Many painters visited Cordova in the 1920s and 30s, including such well-known painters of the Pacific Northwest as Sydney Laurence, Ted Lambert, Jules Dahlager, and Eustace Ziegler. The painters, who were not permanent residents of Alaska but often came north to paint the grand Alaskan landscape, would gather in the evening and paint in the lobby of Cordova's grand Windsor Hotel. They are still some of Alaska's most beloved and collected historical painters. "It was magic watching them," said Hoover, "They had their easels set up there...so that probably had an influence on me, watching them paint like that." Hoover never spoke to the visiting artists but their presence made an impression on him. He particularly remembers seeing them seated before the enormous fireplace in the hotel painting mountains and seascapes. Hoover also remembers admiring the work of Josephine Crumbine, an Alaska artist who specialized in paintings of animals and who is best known for a set of menu illustrations of sled dogs she created in the 1950s for the Alaska Steamship Company. Crumbine made frequent trips to Cordova in the 1930s and 1940s.

Hoover took an extra year to finish high school, because he chose to dig clams rather than attend classes most springs. He was one of the best clam diggers in the area, collecting one thousand pounds of clams in one tide and averaging seventy-five dollars a day. Hoover also worked for fifteen cents an hour in the salmon canneries and for forty cents an hour on the railroad in a tie-tamping camp. Following graduation from Cordova High School in 1938, he worked at many odd jobs, including as a pile driver, shipwright (carpenter), and machinist's helper. He even had his own taxicab stand. Fishing, however, was the most consistent activity in Hoover's life and he even built his own boats.

While earning a living at these odd jobs, Hoover also continued to experiment with oil painting, although he claims never to have sold a single completed work. "I couldn't sell the damn things. Fifty to seventy-five dollars a painting -- big paintings -- and it was impossible. There were too many other painters around." Although most of his paintings depicted images of fishing boats and the sea, Hoover did tackle many other themes and styles. "When I was painting, I got into everything: Cubism, Impressionism, I tried them all. I had several books on different artists," said Hoover. He learned his techniques by reviewing how-to art books by Walter Foster. Using these books, Hoover experimented with painting, drawing and working in perspective, mostly creating images of fishing boats and stormy seas. It was the income from commercial fishing that allowed Hoover to paint for the eight to nine months of each year that he wasn't at sea. "I just did what I wanted to do. What I felt was pleasing to me, you know, rewarding," said Hoover.

Cordova was the site of a major military buildup during World War II. Although many Cordovans joined the military, fishing was considered important to the war effort, and good fishermen were given deferments to continue their trade.

"I was a draft dodger for two years," laughs Hoover, who eventually was drafted when he was twenty-three and served in the U.S. Army Transportation Service, skippering an eighty-five-foot power barge based at Unalaska that supplied military posts throughout the stormy Aleutians. By war's end, he was a master sergeant, commanding a 138-foot freight and passenger ship on assignment in Alaska, which won him a Navy Citation for salvage work.

I was fishing and had a deferment, but they finally caught up with me. I was working for [the construction company] Morrison Knudson who had a deferment in the winter, but I finally got drafted. And a week after I got drafted, we were supposed to go to the South Pacific with an engineering company. We went to Whittier [Alaska] and worked on clearing land for an army post for a week, and then I got lucky. Howard Wakefield, who was in charge of the harbor-craft detachment, had about thirty boats and nobody to run them; and he just didn't know what the hell to do, so he got me out of the engineers, and a month after I was in the Army I was back home running a boat. I was really lucky, except I had to go to the Aleutian Islands for three years, and that was really tough. A lot of people drowned there -- not from warfare, just the weather. I've been sort of lucky all my life. That was real lucky because the guys that went, some got shot up and killed.

Like many servicemen discharged from the Army, Hoover used the G.I. Bill for training. He took an unusual approach, traveling to Seattle for two months of Fred Astaire dance lessons as well as piano lessons. Upon returning to Cordova, Hoover again turned to the sea, purchasing a power barge called the Red Head:

We went all over, hauling lumber and fuel, towing logs, and brailing salmon. Used to go out to Seattle every winter. We had that barge for about three years, and then we sold it. Paid eight thousand dollars for it; it was only three months old. Eighty-five-foot-long barge. We used it for three years and sold it for fifty thousand dollars. Got lucky, I guess.

After the war, Hoover worked not only at painting and fishing, but also as a drummer in a dance band in Cordova three nights a week. He had learned to play the drum with the American Legion drum and bugle corps, and he traveled with them from city to city, where contests were held. Hoover was the Sergeant Drummer. "With stripes, you know," he said with a smile.

In 1946 Hoover married Barbara McAllister, a Montana-born twenty-year-old who was living in Palmer, Alaska when she met Hoover. In the years following the marriage, Hoover continued working as a commercial fisherman and shipwright to support his growing family. Barbara and John would eventually have five children, all named after Catholic saints: Mark, born 1949; Martha, born 1950; Tony, born 1951; Grace Ann, born 1955; and Jane, born 1964.

In 1950 Hoover was determined to become a serious painter. He ordered a small oil painting set from the Sears-Roebuck catalog: "There was one piece of board and I cut it up into four pieces, each just four by six inches. There was one little brush." He completed four works. Lake Eyak, Cordova, Alaska was a depiction of Eyak Lake and the road from the town that leads to the lake. Mt. Eccles, Cordova, Alaska celebrated the mountains that surround Cordova. "Everyone in Alaska had painted this one [Mt. Eccles] -- like Mount McKinley, almost," he laughed. Cannery Row features a waterfront scene and the long row of canneries that lined the shore. "Turned out pretty good, really," declared Hoover, who is still in possession of these early attempts. The fourth small board was used to create pencil sketch called Fishing Grounds. In 2001, Hoover still considers Mt. Eccles, Cordova, Alaska one of his best paintings.

 

Life as a Painter

In 1952 Hoover and his young family left Cordova and moved to Edmonds, Washington. The move was prompted by an invitation from the Anchorage Ski Club to take fifty skiers to Sun Valley on a DC3 cargo airplane. Hoover was one of three from an Alaska racing team that went along. They were able to ski with Ziggy Engle, a Scandinavian Olympic skier who was chosen to run the ski school in Sun Valley when it first opened. Hoover entertained dreams of being a ski instructor in Sun Valley, after a personal invitation to do so from Engle, but after the initial trip, he never returned to Idaho.

In Edmonds, Hoover continued to pursue his interest in art, becoming a member of Seattle Co-Arts, joining thirty-five women and one other man -- all painters. The group shared a co-op gallery in Bellevue and would go on painting excursions around the Seattle area, most often to the waterfront.

Many members of Seattle Co-Arts had previously attended the Leon Derbyshire School of Fine Art. The school specialized in drawing and painting and occupied the entire fourteenth floor of a Seattle high-rise. Hoover, too, attended Leon Derbyshire for three years, from 1957 to 1960, studying with Derbyshire himself. "I think you have to have a background like that," said Hoover. "You have to have some lessons. You have to have a good teacher." Hoover credits Derbyshire with truly teaching him how to paint, offering instruction in both techniques and style. Hoover also remembers brief interactions with other Seattle-area painters, such as Guy Anderson, Morris Graves and Mark Tobey, who would later go on to become artists with international reputations. He says being in the continual presence of other artists helped him to stay dedicated to developing his own artwork. It was validating to be among others who were involved in the same endeavor.

The paintings Hoover created during this time, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, varied in both theme and style. Most were reminiscences of his years in Cordova, although others did reflect his current life and setting. Eyak Church, 1959, depicts a Russian Orthodox Church in Cordova. Hoover recalls Russian Orthodox celebrations, in which the Eyak Indians of Cordova took part.

We lived uptown. Downtown -- old town -- was where the Eyaks lived. During certain Russian Orthodox holidays they would build prayer wheels and would walk with the wheels to the homes of townspeople they knew that were part Indian or Aleut. People would give them food. I just vaguely remember it. I made this painting of what I thought it looked like.

Other Alaska-inspired paintings feature fishing. Putting Out the Lead, 1960, and Stake Net, 1961, depict rough Alaskan seas and mountains. Stake Net is a tribute to Hoover's father, who fished in both Katalla and Cordova. The stake nets were gillnets set on poles, forming a trap -- something that is no longer permitted in Alaskan waters. "I started fishing in 1928 and have continued to fish my whole life, more than seventy years," said Hoover. "Fishing was one of the reasons why I could be an artist -- I didn't have to depend on the money from selling art." Hoover both reveres and fears the sea. It is a relationship to nature that Hoover wishes to share:

Like all fathers, I wish to pass on to my sons a means of livelihood, and as much as is possible, an understanding of life itself. The sea and fishing are great teachers of patience, respect, close harmony with other men, tolerance, a highly competitive spirit of camaraderie, a nearness to God and ready access to the bountiful bosom of His Mother Nature.

Fish Camp, 1959, depicts a fishing scene closer to Hoover's life in Edmonds. Hoover used to visit the Tulalip Indian reservation, particularly in the late 1950s when he was sketching a lot of the time. On the reservation he encountered a fish camp where the Tulalips kept their fishing boats and gear. Hoover watched them set nets using just skiffs and outboards for fishing boats. The scene made Hoover homesick for Cordova and he sketched the scene on site, later working it into a fully developed painting. Self-portrait, 1957, is dominated by a back view of the artist staring out over a tulip field on the Tulalip reservation.

Out My Studio Window, 1956, is a painting Hoover created from a two-story studio he built adjacent to his Edmonds home. The front of the studio was lined with plate-glass windows. The title of the painting and the construction of the studio demonstrate Hoover's willingness to identify himself as an artist, something he had been reluctant to do prior to moving to Edmonds. Hoover's daughter Martha recalls the Hoover's Edmonds' home as a brown ranch-style house with beautiful views of Puget Sound. Martha remembers Hoover's studio smelling of cedar, linseed oil, and turpentine. Jazz music, particularly by Miles Davis, was always playing "really loud" as Hoover worked. She said it was a fun place to explore, but clearly "Dad's domain."

The 1950s were consumed by fatherhood for Hoover, with three children born that decade. Hoover's children recall a father who led by example rather than words and who stressed individuality and a thoughtful approach to life.

Hoover represented a different kind of spirituality to his children from that of their mother Barbara, who was Catholic. Hoover did not go to church with the family. "The spirits of the sea and the forest were what Dad worshiped," explained Martha.

And he worships the Creator that made all of that -- the source of all things. This wasn't anything spoken. We just knew. Just watching how a person salts fish, steers a boat or works with wood. That's how you can feel someone's spirituality -- that's how Dad showed his spirituality. It was just innate. There weren't any lesson books.

The children learned of their Aleut heritage by observing their father, rather than by anything he told them directly. Each child would ultimately go back to Alaska in adulthood to discover his or her own heritage. Martha credits her father with her desire to reclaim her heritage:

My love for my ancestry is from my father. With my green eyes, dark hair, and high cheekbones, I don't necessarily look Native. But ever since I reached adulthood, I've been in politics, involved in efforts to revive Native culture in villages, and involved in programs throughout Alaska to promote pride and cultural values. I attribute that to the love I have for my grandmother and something I picked up from my dad -- the pride he has in his Native heritage in spite of all the prejudice he experienced growing up.

Hoover also instilled a deep respect for art and artistic traditions in his children. Martha recalls that following their artistic impulses was strongly encouraged:

What he did get through to me loud and clear was family values and what is expected of you in a family sense. What was expected of us was to be one of a kind. There always seemed to be a test of creativity. Creativity was what was valued more than materialism or anything else. There was even a push for all of us to study the violin because that was Elenore's instrument. Grace Ann could play the violin. I couldn't; but we're all artistic in our own way. Every part of our being either had something to do with art or fish.

Martha remembers their family being "different from other families: "When we went on family outings, we'd go to museums and galleries and spend all day there. We'd spread out and each go where we wanted to go and see what we wanted to see." The Hoovers often visited the Seattle Art Museum. They would also go on outings to visit other local artists or travel to Neah Bay to visit the Makah reservation. "We'd load up the station wagon and head to Neah Bay and stay with friends who had a hotel," remembers Martha. "People from the reservation taught us how to eat goose neck barnacles and things from off the reef."

The Hoovers would live in Edmonds in the winter months and travel each spring to Cordova, where they kept a family boat. For the first few years, Hoover would travel back to Alaska alone, spending the summer away from the family, which stayed in Edmonds. But by 1964, after youngest daughter Jane was born, the whole family would fish for salmon and gillnet together in Prince William Sound. They would also visit Annie, Hoover's mother, while in Alaska. Commercial fishing in the summer supplied the family with enough income to live on the remainder of the year and allowed Hoover to work on his art full-time in the winter months.

In the late 1950s, in addition to exhibiting at the Co-Arts gallery in Bellevue, Hoover was showing his work at the Haines Gallery in Seattle and had a small exhibition at the Capitol Museum in Olympia, Washington. In 1960 Hoover finally sold one of his paintings: the Seattle Art Museum purchased The Gleaners, 1958, for its permanent collection. Dr. Richard E. Fuller, founder of the Seattle Art Museum, was a friend of John and Barbara Hoover's, often dining with them socially. In 1960 Fuller invited Hoover to the museum to show him his paintings. He asked Hoover how much he wanted for them. "Fifty bucks," replied Hoover. Fuller selected The Gleaners and made the purchase for the museum himself. The painting was a depiction of Seattle's homeless, whom Hoover often observed when he picked up his wife Barbara in the alley behind a hotel restaurant where she worked. Hoover recalled that each "gleaner" had his own garbage can staked out; most had many pockets sewn into their clothing or overcoats where they placed food scraps. Hoover visited the alley one day specifically to sketch them, and later created a painting based on his sketch. Hoover was quite pleased that the Seattle Art Museum valued his work enough to purchase one of his paintings, but his own interest soon thereafter turned from painting to sculpture.

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