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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Magnus Colcord Heurlin

Like many of Magnus Colcord Heurlin's paintings, this one is untitled and undated.

An untitled painting typical of Heurlin's
style and content from the post-war era.
I think it was the day after Memorial Day, 1966. My Alaska Airline 727 departed Seattle-Tacoma International Airport heading north and west. About three hours later I was in Alaska, on my way to my first U.S. Air Force duty assignment at Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage. It was a beautiful spring day with no hint of the meteorlogical mahem I was to encounter during the next two years. I saw temperatures dip as low as -40 F. I once got lost in a blizzard while pushing a garbage can across an icy parking lot. I don't think I ever saw it get much above 70 degrees on the warmest, sunniest days of my two "midnight sun" summers there. I did, however, get the worst sunburn of my life, while lying out on a blanket trying to make the most of one of those sunny days. It was sometimes dark by three p.m. while sunrise, such as it was, came as late as nine a.m. To help fill those long sunny days of summer and the seemingly even longer nightime hours of winter, I began to paint. I sold my first portraits during my time in Alaska.
Barrow, Alaska, today--not very inspirational. Imagine what it was in 1916.

Heurlin's paintings often tell a story, a
trait from his days as an illustrator.
Magnus Colcord Heurlin came to Alsaka a few years before I did. He arrived in 1916 at the age of twenty-one. He disembarked in the coastal port of Valdez and headed north. He ended up about as far north as one can go, the bleak little town of Barrow, on Alaska's north slope. There he painted the Inupiat native tribe, concentrating on hunting and whaling images. It must have been a  rather meager existence. Although there may have been a certain novelty to his oil paintings, I can't imagine their being very high on the "must have" list of anyone else living in the area (natives or otherwise).
Untitled, but probably from Heurlin's 1916-17 stint at Barrow.
That appears to be a biplane in the sky.
Alaska, Magnus Colcord Heurlin,
probably from the 1940s
Magnus (nicknamed Rusty) Heurlin was no stranger to frigid weather. Though his parents were American, he was born in Sweden. Most of his life, however, he'd lived in the East, getting his start as a Wesport, Connecticut, artist doing illustrations for New York City magazine publishers. His only formal training in art had been the Fenway School of Illustration in Boston. Heurlin left Alaska after only a year to serve in the U.S. Navy during WW I. Life was tough for working artists after the war, even during the relative "good times" of the 1920s. With the Great Depression, Roosevelt's WPA was a godsend for starving (sometimes quite literally) artists. Heurlin took advantage of the helping hand of government. His murals can still be seen in a local Westport public school.
Dogsledding through a Snow-covered Forest, Magnus Colcord Heurlin.
The soft brushwork and low-contrast, subtle palette is perfectly in
keeping with the winter color range of the Alaskan wilderness.
A Heurlin recruiting poster based
based upon an earlier war bond poster
As have so many in the past, Rusty Heurlin had fallen in love with the cold, quiet, beauty of the Alaskan wilderness (a fate I successfully resisted). In 1935, Heurlin decided the Depression in snowy Alaska was no worse than that of snowy Wesport, so he returned with his wife, this time to the small gold-mining town of Ester, just outside Fairbanks, where he worked the river dredges. When WW II came along, driven by the fear of a Japanese invasion, Heurlin and men like him joined the Alaska Territorial Guard. As it became apparent that the Japanese were more interested in warmer climates, Heurlin returned to his cabin in the woods to once more try his hand at art. During the 1950s, he managed to get a job teaching it at the Fairbanks branch of the University of Alaska. Some of his students continue to depict the frozen vistas and wildlife that have become the state's trademark.
Rusty Heurlin and a mural at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
Artists are often remembered for their "firsts." Magnus Colcord Heurlin was not the first Alaskan artist. (That was probably some Russian dude.) And despite an honorary degree in 1971 from his employer, he was not particularly outstanding as an painter. But he was undoubtedly the first artist in Barrow, Alaska, and likely the first Alaskan artist to actually earn a living as a painter at a time when artists in the land of long winters and short summers, were pretty "rare birds." His teaching legacy lives on in many artist still working there today. Having experienced firsthand the joy of becoming a painter in Alaska, that makes Heurlin outstanding my view.

Paradise, Magnus Colcord Heurlin

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