Chimney smoke rises from the roof of a snow-covered cabin under a canopy of stars; a tent is pitched at the edge of a calm lake that reflects the evening’s trailing light; a silhouetted dog team pauses on a moon-lit trail in the depth of winter as the musher, his steamy breath illuminated by headlight, makes harness adjustments.
These are the kind of scenes that can be found in the acrylic paintings of Jon Van Zyle, one of Alaska’s preeminent artists.
For more than 40 years, Van Zyle’s paintings, posters, and book illustrations have vividly captured the very essence of Alaska life for which he has received both national and international acclaim.
Jon Van Zyle’s name stands squarely with a list of noted Alaskan artists who found their calling in Alaska. Some of these include Sydney Laurence, Fred Machetanz and Eunice Zigler.
But with a longstanding reputation as the “Official artist of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race,” a title bestowed upon him in 1979 after completing his second Iditarod race, Van Zyle prefers to think of himself as an Alaskan artist in a broader sense.
“I have been out in the wilds and experienced Alaska’s raw beauty first hand,” he says. “When I paint the things I’ve seen, I am not simply re-creating images. I am painting my own experiences and memories.”
Jon and his identical twin brother Dan were raised by their mother, Ruth Van Zyle, a skilled artist.
In the early 1940s, the family moved to central New York state. It was here that Ruth’s creative energy ignited an artistic spark within him and his brother; however, Jon never received any formal art training.
Jon explains, “She would have me do a drawing of a cup placed on a table, and after I was done, tell me to draw it again. I couldn’t see how I could change it, but every time, she kept telling me to do it over. It finally occurred to me what she was trying to do. She wanted me to see more, to observe more deeply. That simple teaching was a foundation for my life’s work.”
Getting to Alaska: Jon’s mother always wanted to venture to Alaska, but in the 1950s managed to take the family west as far as Boulder, Colorado, where she continued to encourage her children’s artistic endeavors. Being raised with hunting and fishing instilled within the brothers an appreciation for nature. Jon says his mom loved and raised dogs, and canines became a big part of Van Zyle family life. At one point when Jon was trying to figure out what do in his life, his mom asked a question: “What do you want to be, an artist or a veterinarian?”
“I chose artist,” Jon recalls with one of his broad smiles. “Glad I did. A vet needs all that science and math.”
Jon’s journey to Alaska was circuitous. After high school he and his brother joined the Army National Guard, receiving training at Fort Ord, California. They both attended Mesa Junior College at Grand Junction, Colorado. When their mom became ill in the 1960s, the brothers entrusted her care to their “Granny” in Denver. They moved to Hawaii where they landed construction jobs, which helped them earn money to help with their mother’s care.
In Honolulu, Jon eventually found a niche with Sears, Roebuck, and Company as a display man. Advancing with the company, he traveled throughout the lower 48 states designing store interiors. While his brother remained in Hawaii building a career as an artist, Jon finally made his way to Anchorage in 1971 with a team of Siberian Huskies and a job at Sears Roebuck.
Arriving in Alaska was the fulfillment of a dream. With an abiding love for dogs, Jon was quick to get into Alaska’s dog mushing scene by participating in sprint races and long winter camping trips.
Breaking trail in Alaska: In the early 1970s, there were murmurs about a proposed sled dog race across Alaska from Anchorage to Nome. Jon helped friend Darrell Reynolds prepare for the first Iditarod race in 1973; and in the spring of 1976, he bid farewell to Sears Roebuck and ran a team of 14 Siberian Huskies more than 1,100 miles to Nome in his first Iditarod race.
Those 26 days on the trail were an epiphany in Jon’s life–an inflection point that marked the beginning of a long career as one Alaska’s most treasured and prolific artists.
From one of his early books, Best of Alaska – The Art of Jon Van Zyle, he writes: “My first Iditarod was a wonderful experience. Traveling along the trail was like going back in history. The route is a cross-section of Alaska: rugged mountains, endless tundra, biting winds and overflow water on wide frozen river ‘highways.’ The 1,100-plus miles were at once beautiful and dreadful, boring and stimulating. I found out who I was, and what was important to me. After that long journey, I painted a series of 20 scenes based on the adventure.”
Jon completed the race again in 1979 and that year was named the official artist of the Iditarod race, a position he has held ever since. Every year he has created an iconic poster that poignantly captures the lore and spirit of the race. In 2004 he was inducted into the Iditarod Hall of Fame.
From his rustic home/studio near Eagle River that he shares with wife Jona, also an accomplished artist, Jon produces up to 80 paintings a year for one-man exhibitions in the U.S. as well as Europe.
He has illustrated at least two children’s books a year since 1993. His limited edition prints and posters sell out regularly with more than 350 editions in the last 40-plus years. He now licenses much of his art, and most recently, has begun having his work reproduced on quilts, which he notes is a growing market.
Among Jon’s many donated art projects benefitting Alaska, in 2009 he designed the Medal of Honor for fallen Alaska soldiers; and in 2019, he received the prestigious Alaska Governor’s Award, citing the longevity of his artistic contributions to the State of Alaska. He has received countless other honors, both nationally and internationally.
In one of Jon’s books, My Colorful Life of Art and Adventure, former Iditarod champion Martin Buser writes: “No other artist has been able to capture the forty-below snow, whisper light auroras, the delicate fireweed, or the reflective sheen of a raven’s back as Jon has…”
Modest almost to a fault, Jon explains: “I like to think that my work has kindled an interest in Alaska among folks of all ages and across the world. Sharing my love for Alaska alongside my wife Jona has been the greatest joy of my life.”
Some have said that over time Alaska has lost some of its mystique and that the Iditarod Race has become too commercialized.
But for Jon, the allure is still there, most likely because of his sharply-honed powers of observation. He knows how to look deeper than most to discover the story inside a scene. He peers far over the horizon and deeply into the woods. He has never forgotten what his mother taught him a long time ago.
Learn more about Jon and Jona Van Zyle’s artwork. Their website can be found at https://www.jonvanzyle.com.
Frank E. Baker is a lifetime Alaska resident and freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired elementary school teacher.