Back in the days when this community sought local government independence, one of the arguments voiced by opponents was that we lacked culture.
The newly-unified Municipality of Anchorage objected to a Chugiak-Eagle River petition to the Local Boundary Commission seeking incorporation as a separate borough. The Municipality’s brief even included the argument, “[T]he closest approximation of a social and cultural center is the supermarket parking lot where the local youth of Chugiak and Eagle River gather.”
That statement was far from true then—and much more distant from reality today.
The husband and wife team of Harvey Goodale and Ellen Henne settled at Upper Fire Lake in the late 1940s.
They had traveled around Alaska for many years, photographing interesting images they would later convert into paintings. Both gained worldwide acclaim and their paintings are still in demand by collectors. One dealer commented on a painting by Henne that the materials used were of very high quality and withstood the years well, the oils showing only “very fine grazing.”
Goodale was born in Massachusetts in 1900 and died in 1980. He was commissioned by Bob Reeve, owner of Reeve Aleutian Airlines, to paint portraits of famous Alaska bush pilots. Henne was born in Seattle in 1915 and died in 1991. Despite the popularity of their artwork, they lived quietly and unpretentiously in their small home and studio in the Fire Lake area.
Settling first in Eagle River Valley before moving to their studio/home in Birchwood was another husband-and-wife team, Jon and Jona Van Zyle. “Team” is a fitting term, because in addition to producing artwork, they raise sled dogs. Jon ran two Iditarod races, completing both—but without competing for a top spot; he spent a lot of time taking photos along the trail. Those pictures served as inspiration for three decades of artistic Alaskan renderings. The prolific painter was named as official artist of the Iditarod in 1979; his service to the organization and the sport of racing earned him a spot in the Iditarod Hall of Fame in 2004.
In addition to painting, Jon is in demand as an illustrator and his work has appeared in dozens of books distributed worldwide. Jona is a multi-media artist whose work in leather and fiber has also won wide acclaim. Her career started, in fact, as a sailmaker.
Another Chugiak artist whose pieces can still be found at auctions was Merice Richner, some of whose paintings were donated to the Chugiak Ladies Club. She was known for her painted gold pans. With the aid of her husband Charles, she pioneered a three-dimensional effect by mounting a layer of glass above the bottom of the pan, combining images to add the impression of depth.
Richner was an able teacher, giving art lessons to many people. She was fondly remembered by former students who provided tributes upon her passing in 2008. One, Ruth King, went on to advanced study in art and now has her own Chugiak studio where she sells original art and photographs.
The Ladies Club, by the way, held at least 16 annual art shows featuring local artists. The club donated many paintings to Chugiak High School to be hung in the building which opened in 1964.
Also contributing to the community’s culture in the early days were such notables as poet Margaret Mielke, who was chosen as Alaska’s first Poet Laureate in 1963. She was the matriarch of a large family of distinguished Alaskans. She taught at Chugiak High School, making a difference in the lives of many young people.
Native artists from Eklutna were also in demand. Birchwood resident Susan Ondola’s beadwork was exquisite and dolls made by the Tetpon family were very popular and treasured by those lucky enough to acquire one.
Notable in the field of music were cellists Arthur and Eleanor Braendel. They homesteaded a tract in Eagle River Valley and made time in their busy lives to be part of the founding of the Anchorage Community Orchestra.
Continuing to share their talents in performances for some six decades, they established a lasting monument to the arts. The Eagle River Fine Arts Academy was founded in 1984.
Its name since changed to Alaska Fine Arts Academy, the non-profit endowed by the Braendels hosts classes for children and adults in art, drama, music, theater and dance. It also holds plays and performances on a regular basis. There is a plan to build a permanent facility on a reserved site in their homestead which is now the high-end Braendel Subdivision. Currently, the academy is located upstairs over Alaska Industrial Hardware, 12340 Old Glenn Highway in Eagle River. Vice-president of the Academy board of directors is the son of the founders, Art Braendel, Jr., himself a popular professional musician.
Another musical contributor who was a valued participant in the Anchorage Community Chorus was Ruth Briggs. She and her husband Dale homesteaded along the Palmer Highway, on what now is Eagle River Road. Stationed at Ft. Richardson during World War II, Dale became a long-time member of the board of directors of Matanuska Electric Association. In addition to singing with the chorus, Ruth had a popular daytime program on an Anchorage radio station.
Many craftsmen also were represented in bygone days. One of those was Fred Burstin, who went by the name of Chief Chugiak. His gift shop near the intersection of Glenn Highway and North Birchwood Road offered jewelry crafted by the owner as well as various knick-knacks. His specialty was “moosequitoes”—varnished droppings left by the ungulates that wandered the nearby woods. Legs and wings were added to the sanitized pieces to resemble Alaska’s notorious flying blood-suckers.
With population growth, Chugiak-Eagle River continues to produce artists, writers, photographers, artisans, actors and musicians who maintain the tradition.
One change to a long-time theme is that Picture This, a leading Eagle River art gallery since 1984, now concentrates more on gift items rather than prints. Founders Dennis Johnson and Jim Starry sold the store to its long-time manager, Michelle Haynes, late last year. The popular shop continues to be busy, but with an inventory that does not specialize in paintings and art reproductions.
Artworks Gallery & Glass at 11421 Old Glenn Highway features stained glass, pottery, fabric art, jewelry and metalwork. They hold classes and have glass supplies in stock.
The shop is “all about art that is fun, colorful, and affordable,” said owner Deborah Lindsay. She listed a number of local artists whose work is on display. They include Ann Newbury, a long-time potter who lives in Eagle River. Another potter is Arlen Hanson. Jerry Thomas “does amazing metalwork.” Tamara Anderson of Alaska Stone Arts cuts her own stone. Trudy Carlson provides woodwork and many artists provide works done in glass.
Brian Walker, II, an Alaska Native, is a wood carver who wants to preserve the art of fashioning masks and other images as did his forebears. A graduate of Chugiak High School, he is studying Outside to learn more techniques of his work.
Stephanie LeProwse has taken over her uncle Art Wallace’s historic Fuji Gifts building in Chugiak, making River’s Edge Studio into a shop featuring local artworks. One of those whose items are carried is Art Woodfin, a former teacher and photographer.
Another former teacher, Sue Zajac, is known for her cards, medallions and prints. She sells them online at SueZajacOriginals.com.
If the talent of all these folks is not enough, let us note that local resident Andrea Noble-Pelant, after serving a decade as Director of Visual and Library Arts Programs with the Alaska Council on the Arts, has been named as Executive Director of that organization. She previously was curator of art education with the Alaska Museum of History and Art at the Rasmuson Center in Anchorage. In her new position, she oversees the state organization that supports and encourages visual and performing arts through grants and other means.
A current project of the arts council is a contest seeking a design idea for a new Alaska vehicle license plate. That contest, which is open to everyone, ends in just four days. The winner could be a student in one of our schools or even one of the many professionals who call Chugiak-Eagle River home. The field is amply wide.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com.