Remember earlier in #thiswritinglife I enjoined the writers among you to never pass up an opportunity to stretch your writing muscle.
And then Byron Birdsall got in touch to ask me to write a foreword to his collection of black-and-white drawings called Byron Birdsall’s Alaska.
Never pass up an opportunity to stretch your writing muscle.
I had to take a big step back from the ledge I was about to fling myself over at the mere suggestion I could write anything intelligent about art and especially about the art of an Alaskan icon like Byron, whose work is on every Alaskan wall including mine, and say in a tiny voice, “Okay.” I have plenty of opinions about art, none of them informed. I’ve seen a lot of stuff I like hanging on the walls of museums, and much more I don’t. (You couldn’t get me back inside the Centre Pompidou at gunpoint.)
In the end the job wasn’t easy but it was pretty straightforward. His publisher sent me the proofs and I wrote what I saw, as follows.
No painting technique is safe from Byron Birdsall. Having made his bones in watercolor with his first solo show in 1967, by 1981 he had moved into oils, and as if that weren’t enough, by 1987 Byron’s homage to Russian icons stepped out in all their gilded moodiness, transporting the viewer straight back to the days of the Russian tsars and the Russian Orthodox Church. I remember a painting that I swear was channeling Rasputin.
One constant throughout Byron’s work has been color, from the delicate washes of his early watercolors to the bolder hues of his oils to the glitter of gold in his iconography. In this collection, just to keep us on our toes, he is switching to pen and ink sketches in black-and-white. He writes
…in 2005 Billie and I were on the St. Charles Bridge in Prague, and I saw a chap sketching away in black and white. I watched him for awhile, and then bought one of his sketches. I was fascinated and decided to try it for myself.
In his foreword Byron says that he is marrying his new-found fascination with pen-and-ink with his lifelong love of history, which I give you fair warning will rapidly become your fascination, too. Page through this volume once and you’ll appreciate his eye for choosing just the right historical photographs to inspire his evocation of times gone by. Page through it again and you’ll notice how the styles of the automobiles act as milestones on this journey. A third time and you find your attention drawn specifically to what changes over the years and, more importantly, what doesn’t.
I love “City Hall, Anchorage, 1942” (p. 32) for the old bus, the older buildings, the styles of dress, including the uniforms that make you remember that this is after Pearl Harbor and we were at war, and that Alaska was a vital part of the Lend-Lease route that ferried airplanes and war materiel to Russia through Siberia. But looming always in the background are the Chugach Mountains, Tikishla and Near Point and Wolverine. You can’t see Flattop behind City Hall, but you know it’s there, and you know that when that particular City Hall building is gone, Flattop will still be there because you hiked it last solstice. If that doesn’t qualify “City Hall, Anchorage, 1942” as a time machine I don’t know what does.
Byron says that most of his inspiration for these sketches comes from the online photography archives of the University of Alaska and the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center. But a photograph only freezes a moment in time, it doesn’t interpret it. In his sketches Byron’s pen thaws these moments into a liquid reflection, a ripple of light and shadow connecting present to past.
My favorite in this collection is “Beautiful downtown Ketchikan, c. 1935.” (p. 74), which exceeds its brief of historical nostalgia to stray into social and cultural commentary. Here we have a working dock in a panhandle port. At bottom right is a fisherman wearing one of those old Greek-style fisherman’s caps. Next to him looms a totem pole topped with a very stern-looking Raven. Almost directly across the street and dwarfed by the totem pole is a light pole, strung with many electric lines crisscrossing overhead. At the far end of the dock a steamer is moored, smokestack emitting a waft of smoke. Maybe it just got there, maybe it’s firing up the boilers prior to departure, we don’t know.
But the dominant figure is the totem pole. It may have been debased by being set up as a come-on for a gift shop, but it hasn’t lost one shred of its dignity. It was there first, and even if it was traditionally meant to dissolve over time beneath the onslaught of wind and weather, you get the feeling that in spirit at least it will always be there, the Raven from its lofty perch louring down on everything — and everyone — that comes after.
Or that’s what I see. Byron’s genius is that you may see something completely different.
Byron died in 2016, the year after this book was published.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.