Monday, October 18, 2010

Artists' spaces: Playhouse turned artist's retreat

Landscape artist Constance Baltuck's space for creating is tucked away in the Juneau flats, on a grassy plot of land next to Gold Creek with a view of Mt. Roberts from the porch. Before becoming her studio, the small house on 10th Street had been used as a getaway spot from her family's main home just a few blocks away, an arrangement she admits is unusual.

"Most people buy recreational property in Shelter Island or Mexico, but we came here everyday because it had a yard in the flats and swings in the trees," she said.

Baltuck renovated the previously abandoned house in 2006, hiring a guy to fix the holes in the ceilings and floors and to stabilize the building. She now creates her colorful paintings in the kitchen.

"I tried setting up my work space upstairs and in different corners, but it always ends up being central," Baltuck said, adding that the kitchen has the advantage of access to running water.

Baltuck has been painting and showing her work in Juneau since 1983, when she had her first show at the now closed Orpheum Theatre.

"I've shown my work once or twice a year since then, except when my children were babies, so Juneau has been really receptive to my work."

Though her paintings are based on the natural world, she allows herself plenty of room for elaboration and interpretation.

"I want it grounded in reality, because that's what makes the painting convincing, but I want a lot of freedom to play with it, because I'm an artist and if we can't do what we want with our worlds on canvas, then why bother?"

She doesn't sketch things first or recreate scenes from photographs, but rather paints things as she sees them in nature, taking her materials to different spots around Juneau. She takes creative license with her colors; most of her paintings contain bold, vibrant hues.

"I really try to paint what I see, and then the colors just sneak in and are brighter and more intense and completely unrelated to what I'm looking at, but for some reason it works," Baltuck said. "By the time I get home and look at my work, it really has no relation to what I took a picture of - it's a whole different thing. I'm not thinking 'Does it look like what I was looking at?' I'm thinking, 'Does it make a good painting?'"

From Detroit to Juneau

Baltuck was raised in Detroit, Michigan, and learned the basics of drawing at the kitchen table with her father. After her father's death, her mother hatched a plan to take the kids to all the national parks in the United States.

"We didn't do that, but we saw a heck of a lot of them, including Alaska," Baltuck said. She already had some familiarity with the state through her great aunt, who worked at the Mount McKinley Lodge in the 1950s.

"We drove here from Michigan with all the kids in a van, so it was 1967 when I first came to Juneau. It was the trip I remembered."

It took Baltuck 14 years to get back to Alaska. During that time she earned a degree in museum studies from the University of Washington and in 1981 got a job as a naturalist for the state ferry system. The job was over before it began: on the ferry to Juneau she was seasick the whole time, and ended up working for the Legislature instead.

She also worked with the U.S. Forest Service and studied botany.

"It was a combined sort of approach to study where I did a lot of work interpreting natural history," Baltuck said.

While she paints primarily Alaska scenes, she also paints when she travels. Last year, with help from a scholarship from the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council, she took her VW bus filled with blank stretch canvases to Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park, working there as an artist in residence through the National Park Service program. She stayed in an adobe house, venturing out to paint in her bus, sheltered from the harsh elements.

"It was great, I had nothing else to do but paint and really explore the park."

Baltuck, who admires artists John Singer Sargent and Claude Monet, believes painting is a luxury.

"In these days and times (being an artist) is really self indulgent," she said, "but I lead a simple life so I can paint."

Juneau's Plein Rein

Although painting is largely a solitary activity, Baltuck says it's nice to have company. She often joins Juneau's Plein Rein on their weekly excursions around Juneau. The group, founded by Barbara Craver and Pua Maunu, go out every Saturday to paint in different locations.

"It's like we hunt and gather and we come home with our prize. The fun part is going out and collecting and painting outdoors - I could do the first stage so easily forever. Then you come home and you've got to make it work. That takes time and sometimes days to finish up."

Sometimes she comes up with a painting she wouldn't show to her own mother.

"When you put that kind of energy and focus into something for days and it doesn't work, that's horrible, it's crushing," she said.

Other times she'll look back at a painting and think it wasn't so bad.

"Nowadays if I do a painting and I'm dissatisfied, I don't destroy it right away, and if there's a chance I think I might like it I'll put it away for a while. But usually if it's bad, it's just plain bad."

Occasionally she'll pull someone in to help her pinpoint a problem.

"One time we did the old trick of turning a painting upside down and there it was, three dark spots that carried your eye right off the canvas. Just by getting rid of the middle dot of color, it stabilized the painting."

Baltuck has shows scheduled at the Canvas in November and the Alaska State Museum in November 2011. In preparation for the latter, she is taking a sabbatical to devote herself as much as she can to her craft.

"One thing about being an artist is no one can tell you you've done it wrong. There's only one important judge of the work and that's the artist."

For more about Baltuck and her work, visit

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