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A Northern Adventure: The Art of Fred Machetanz (1908-2002)

June 16 - September 19, 2004


(above: Fred Machetanz (1908-2002), Quest for Avuk, oil on board)


"If anyone viewing my work has felt the beauty, the thrills and the fascination

I have known in Alaska, then I have succeeded in what I set out to do."

- Fred Machetanz


A Northern Adventure: The Art of Fred Machetanz, a retrospective exhibition chronicling the work of one of Alaska's most beloved artists, opened at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art on June 16, 2004. The exhibition includes approximately 92 original paintings and preparatory studies, illustrations from the artist's publications, excerpts from the extensive film footage he and his wife Sara produced, artifacts they collected, and material from his studio. (right: Fred Machetanz (1908-2002), Sentinel of the Arctic, oil on board)

According to the exhibition's gallery guide, Maxfield Parrish [1], the famous illustrator of the early 20th Century, was "one of the most important influences in Fred's life, taught him how to paint oil with translucent layers of colored glazes. This painting technique, and the use of ultramarine as a base color, gives Fred's paintings the luminosity and intensity that makes hem so recognizable today."

A Northern Adventure was organized for the Anchorage Museum by Kesler Woodward, author of Sydney Laurence: Painter of the North; Spirit of the North: The Art of Eustace Paul Ziegler; and numerous other publications on the art of Alaska and the Circumpolar North. The exhibition is accompanied by Woodward's fully illustrated, 100-page monograph chronicling Machetanz's life and work and placing him in the context of Alaskan and American painting.

The exhibition will travel to other museums in Alaska and the rest of the United States throughout 2004-2005. Future exhibition dates at other museums include:

Morris Museum of Art
Augusta, GA
January 13 - March 6, 2005
Alaska State Museum
Juneau, AK
May 7 - September 24, 2005

Major sponsors of this exhibition include The William S. Morris III Family and Morris Communications Company LLC, H. Willard Nagley II, and the Anchorage Museum Foundation.

Introduction to the Exhibition

By Kesler Woodward, Guest Curator


The death of Fred Machetanz on October 6, 2002, marked the end of an era in Alaska art. At the age of 94, Machetanz was a larger-than-life figure in traditional Alaska painting, a link with an earlier, heroic generation of pioneer painters. Those earliest significant painters to make Alaska their home -- men like Sydney Laurence, Eustace Ziegler, Ted Lambert, and Jules Dahlager -- worked in various styles, but they shared a romantic vision of a grand, sparsely settled, pristine country where hardy souls make a home in the wilderness by living close to the land. Their work cemented in the minds of most Alaskans, and many others throughout the world, an image of Alaskans as pioneers, and Alaska as the last frontier.

Fred Machetanz arrived not long after those beloved figures in Alaska art, traveling to Unalakleet in 1935 to visit his uncle Traeger, who ran a trading post in the mostly Inupiaq community. Fresh from completing a master's degree in art at Ohio State University, the young Machetanz planned to stay six weeks. One of his most striking painting, Miowak, memorializes the moment of his disembarkation at the Unalakleet airstrip, when an Inupiaq woman greeting the plane stared at him in wonder, convinced that he was the son she had recently lost who was now being returned to her miraculously in different form. Miowak -- Marian Gonongan -- befriended him and continued to treat him as a son during the six-week visit that stretched to two years.

At the end of that stay, the young artist took a large portfolio of paintings and drawings of Arctic Alaska to New York, hoping to illustrate books on Alaska. Though publishers admired his work and hired him to produce illustration, they told him they had no Alaska books in the works, and that if he wanted to make Alaska illustrations he would have to write his own. In 1939, he wrote and illustrated his first volume, Panuck, Eskimo Sled Dog, and he followed it in 1940 with On Arctic Ice.

Despite steady work and growing success as an illustrator in New York, Machetanz longed to return to Alaska, and he found a way when he volunteered for naval service in World War II and requested posting to the Aleutians. He served there from 1942-45, becoming a lieutenant commander in charge of intelligence for the North Pacific Command. After a brief period of training in lithography with Will Barnet at the Art Students League in New York immediately following his discharge at war's end, he headed back to Unalakleet in 1946.

The return voyage was a fortuitous one, as on it he met Sara Dunn, a writer on leave from the public relations section of RCA Victor. From the time they were married in 1947 in Unalakleet until Sara's death in September 2001, they were a successful and inseparable team. Together they worked on and published eight books, and they also collaborated on a number of films for Walt Disney, the Territory of Alaska, and Encyclopedia Britannica. Together they journeyed to every corner of Alaska, and from 1948 to 1960 they traveled throughout the lower 48 in the winter months lecturing on Alaska and promoting their books and films.

The couple built a log cabin in 1951 on High Ridge above Palmer, which they added onto through the years and lived in for the rest of their lives. After the birth of their only son Traeger in 1959, they curtailed their travel, and with the encouragement and support of a number of prominent Anchorage business leaders, Fred soon set aside a year to concentrate fully on his painting. His 1962 exhibition of 44 works at the Anchorage Westward Hotel was a huge success, and he was able to become a full-time painter.

Machetanz paintings are seen in museums, businesses, public places and private homes throughout Alaska and beyond, and they are instantly recognizable. Almost always on hardboard -- sometimes on the smooth side and other times on the textured side of the board -- they are luminous images of Alaska and Alaskans. On the carefully primed hardboard surfaces, the artist began by laying in his scenes with a large bristle brush in ultramarine blue. Over a period of weeks, he then added thin layers of transparent, linseed oil-based glazes, building up surface colors and refining forms. The finished paintings glow as light penetrates and is reflected back through the many layers of glaze. The glazing technique is one employed by artists since the development of oil paints in the Renaissance, but Machetanz's use of ultramarine as a starting color to develop his forms contrasts with traditional underpainting in earth tones, and accounts for much of the chill, Northern intensity of his work.

Named Alaskan of the Year in 1977, honored as American Artist of the Year by American Artist magazine in 1981, and awarded honorary doctorates by both the University of Alaska and Ohio State University, Fred Machetanz's life was a long tale of adventure and accomplishment. His work is avidly sought after by collectors not just in Alaska, but throughout the United states and abroad. The romantic image of frontier Alaska he inherited from Sydney Laurence and others, but developed in a personal way as he carried it into and through the second half of the twentieth century, remains an important inspiration for artists seeking to perpetuate that image in the new millennium.

But even for artists trying to find new and different ways of depicting Alaska, his life serves as an inspiration. He was unfailingly gracious and supportive of other artists, and his work ethic in the studio -- painting steadily every day well into his eighties, when his health, rather than his will began to fail him--serves as a model for artists who hope to make lasting, significant contributions of their own. Fred Machetanz's life was one of both adventure and hard work. Those who knew him will miss him, and Alaskans and others can be grateful for the enduring legacy he left behind.

About the Curator

An Alaska resident since 1977, Kesler Woodward served as Curator of Visual Arts at the Alaska State Museum and as Artistic Director of the Visual Arts Center of Alaska before moving to Fairbanks in 1981. He is currently professor emeritus of art at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he taught for two decades, serving as Chair of the Art Department and as Chair of the Division of Arts and Communications. He retired from teaching in the spring of 2000.
One of Alaska's best known painters, whose work is included in all major public art collections in Alaska and in museum, corporate and private collections throughout the United States, Woodward is equally well known as a curator, art historian, and author. Since 1990, he has produced five books on Alaska art, including the first comprehensive survey of the fine arts in Alaska, Painting in the North, published by the Anchorage Museum and University of Washington Press in 1993. His latest volume, Painting Alaska, was published by the Alaska Geographic Society in 2000. He has lectured on art of the circumpolar north from Alaska to Georgia, New England and the British Museum in London.
In 1990 Woodward organized the Anchorage Museum's first major traveling exhibition, Sydney Laurence: Painter of the North. His 1998 retrospective exhibition for this museum, Spirit of the North: The Art of Eustace Paul Zieger traveled to museums in Alaska and on both coasts of the United States.
Woodward has been appointed to the Alaska State Council on the Arts by three Alaska governors and is currently Chairman of the Board of the Western States Arts Federation.


About Morris Communications

Morris Communications is a privately held media company with diversified' holdings that include newspaper and magazine publishing, outdoor advertising, radio broadcasting, book publishing and distribution, and computer services: Headquartered in Augusta, GA., the company has a strong presence in Alaska with the Morris Alaska media group that includes newspapers in Juneau, Kenai and Homer, Alaska magazine, The MILEPOST, the Alaska Journal of Commerce and other publications, as well as six radio stations.
A Northern Adventure marks the second collaboration between the Anchorage Museum of History and Art and Morris Communications, following the 1998 exhibition catalogue for Spirit of the North: The Art of Eustace Paul Ziegler. Morris Communications is publisher of the catalogue for the Machetanz exhibition, as well.
William S. Morris III, chairman and CEO of Morris Communications, first visited Alaska in 1968. With the purchase of the Juneau Empire newspaper the following year, he and his family began what has become a longtime commitment to State of Alaska and its art and artists:
The Morris collection of Alaska art, housed in corporate buildings in Juneau, Anchorage and Augusta, incorporates paintings by Native artists, the Alaska "old masters" and contemporary painters of the Alaska scene. The works of Fred Machetanz have long held a special appeal for Mr. Morris. Strongly committed to support of the visual arts (the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta features one of the country's largest collections of Southern art), Mr. Morris affirms his interest in documenting important Alaska art with his sponsorship of the Machetanz exhibition.

(above: Fred Machetanz (1908-2002), The Limitless Arctic, oil on board)


Programs and Activities

Machetanz Silent Film Festival ­ July 16, 17, 18
Fred and Sara Machetanz toured the Lower 48 for years showcasing the often silent films about life in Alaska. While the films were playing behind them, they would lecture to sold-out crowds about their experiences in the state. See this rare opportunity to view a number of these films Friday, July 16 - Sunday, July 18, 11:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. (right: Fred Machetanz (1908-2002), Where men and Dogs Seem Small, oil on board)
Machetanz film shows daily at the Museum
"Masterpieces in Motion" - Sunday through Saturday at 1:30 p.m.
Alaska artist Fred Machetanz died in late 2002 leaving a legacy of work reflecting his love of Alaska and life above the Arctic Circle. "Masterpieces in Motion" will be presented in the Auditorium May 17 to Sept. 15. Running time is 27 minutes.
"Objects of Inspiration: Fred Machetanz's Alaska Native Artifacts"
Wednesday, July 28 at 7 p.m.
Artist Fred Machetanz's first major contact with Alaska came in 1912 when he was four years old and living in Ohio. His family received two large trunks filled with hundreds of Native artifacts from his uncle Charles Traeger, a Gold Rush trader living in St. Michael. The collection included finely made kayak and canoe models, baskets, ivory carvings, beadwork and tools. Fred eventually brought the collection back to Alaska, still in the same two trunks, and he and his wife Sara donated it to the Museum in 1985. He used pieces from the collection as models for his paintings; many of these objects are now on display in the Machetanz retrospective. Walter Van Horn, curator of collections, will present a slide lecture and gallery tour Wednesday, July 28 at 7 p.m.


(above: Fred Machetanz (1908-2002), Mighty Hunter, oil on board)



1. RLM readers may see essays and articles on Maxfield Parrish via Traditional Fine Arts Organization's Distinguished Artists Series. Readers will also see RLM's essays and articles on Will Barnet via the Distinguished Artists Series. As an alternate, a Google search within the tfaoi.org domain will yield numerous references to the artists.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Anchorage Museum of History and Art in Resource Library Magazine.

Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library Magazine for thousands of articles and essays on American art, calendars, and much more.

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