AK: A Visit with Seward Artist, Dot Bardarson

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After four decades in Seward, one of Alaska’s best loved artists takes a look back at the events, and the environment, that shaped her life and her art. Dot Bardarson has long been an icon for her award winning watercolors and her work as a muralist, not to mention her days as a gallery owner.

It’s a dreamy winter day in Seward. Plump snowflakes are falling straight downward, heavy enough to be pulled by gravity.

Outside Dot Bardarson’s house, chimes sound in a light breeze, but the overcast obscures what would be a striking view of Mt. Marathon.

I knock on the door, and get a cheery “Hi Ellen,” when Dot opens the door.

Inside, we look out the picture window of her living room. Her Husband Linnae snoozes on the couch and Melody the cat perches on the staircase. A Stellar’s jay determinedly pecks away at a bird feeder outside on the front deck.

All is as it should be at Dot’s place. The Bardarson’s have been there 41 years.

Dot’s approaching her eightieth birthday now, although so lively one would never guess her years. She laughs that life took her from deck hand on a fishing tender to a creator… and a collector… of art. It’s a life many nowadays would envy.

Dot tells me how she came to Alaska from her native New York

“My dad was in the Coast Guard, and was transferred to Seattle. He wanted me to come, because my parents didn’t like my boyfriend. So I went west and immediately met my husband Linnae in Seattle. It turned out that we were pursuing each other. “

Fishing brought them North in the nineteen seventies.

“My husband was managing a crab plant in Unalaska . And we got the opportunity to move to Seward, and to help to construct and operate Seward Fisheries. We’d never even heard of Seward then. When we moved to Seward I knew I was home. We built this house right away. It was raw, the highway to Seward was not paved yet and there were thirteen bars and thirteen churches”

It’s about here that Dot’s life, up till now, fishing, homemaking and children, took another turn.

“I started making ink sketches all over town, were so many things to draw. And they were selling. And then I started doing watercolors all over town. Then I entered a show in 1973 over in Kenai and won Best of Show. It was at that point that I realized I could make money at it. It was not going to be just a hobby. “

In college, Dot had studied everything, from pottery to wood carving, and realized that the Alaska landscape, although rough, provided a unique palette for her watercolors.

“I couldn’t throw a pot to save me. And I said to myself, you know, I’m really good at watercolor, and to be good at something the rest of my life, I should probably concentrate on that and not try to do too many things.”

Her work mixes colorful whimsy with meticulous design and it quickly captured recognition.

“I thought we’d go out to the studio” Dot suggests.

Seward’s rather wet weather has prompted the Bardarsons to construct covered walkways leading from the main house to various outbuildings. One of them leads out the back door to Dot’s studio. It’s in a tiny cabin behind the house. She gives me a tour through perfectly ordered clutter.

“I’m in the process of cataloguing al l my work”, Dot says..”That’s a big project Here’s the photos, “ she shows me her files neatly stored in drawers.

We sit down at a tiny table below a cathedral window to drink tea out of a hand thrown pottery tea pot, and talk about art.

Constructions, carvings, watercolors, gadgets and works in progress, fill her tidy studio practically to capacity. A drafting table in one corner is crowded with an artist’s tools.

“This is a design for a mural I am working on for the Mural Society. The city of Seward is taking a mural to our sister city in Japan”

The city of Seward bills itself as the Mural Capital of Alaska, by the way. A dozen murals bedeck buildings and delight tourists in Seward

The one Dot is working on will be painted at Seward’s sister city in Japan in a couple of years.

Dot owned her own gallery in Seward for some years, representing some of Alaska’s best known artists

A working artist herself, Dot understands the unique position that artists are in.

“Well, and art needs to be compensated. You spend hours and hours putting a piece together and then you have the cost of the framing. And you know what that costs. And if it’s sold by a gallery the gallery takes forty of fifty percent, sometimes fifty-five. And what’s left for the artist? You’re not taking much home.”

She learned the business end of art, and says that marketing is a major component in success.

After close to half a century in Seward, Dot says there’s not one thing she’d do differently – all her children and grandchildren live there, too. She pulls out a scrapbook crammed with photos and lyrics.

“So here’s our Bardarson family songbook. And the songs in the front are all songs that I’ve written.”

Did I mention that Dot plays guitar and piano? She’s a reluctant performer, but that’s her on the keys of her baby grand.

Some years ago Dot wrote a song to the city she calls home. That song, called Seward, Beautiful Resurrection Bay, is the city’s official song now and graces the city website.

What’s next? Dot says, she just takes it as it comes.