Historic Juneau park becomes an oasis for Alaska artists

Juneau artist Constance Baltuck paints in the rocky shoreline of Lynn Canal. The legs of her easel are getting wet from the incoming tide. On the canvas, details emerge from the colors.

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Baltuck says she’ll leave an easel for other artists this summer. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
Baltuck says she’ll leave an easel for other artists this summer. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

“This is the barnacles and the kelp and the mussels, they’re just so beautiful the way they interact and cling to the rocks,” Baltuck says.

Baltuck is the first artist of a pilot program at the cabin run by Alaska State Parks. Located 26 miles from downtown Juneau, the cabin is where former territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening wrote the book “The State of Alaska,” making a case for statehood several years before it would happen. The cabin started out as a summer getaway for the family and later became a year-round residence. More than six decades later, the historic cabin is now used as a retreat for Alaska artists.

The Gruenings moved to Juneau in 1939. The cabin, known by the family as Eaglerock, was built in 1947. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
The Gruenings moved to Juneau in 1939. The cabin, known by the family as Eaglerock, was built in 1947. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Park Superintendent Mike Eberhardt says the Ernest Gruening State Historic Park received $30,000 to run an artist-in-residence program for two years. The artists are required to hold a community workshop and contribute a piece of art to the park. Eberhardt hopes the program will generate more interest in the site.

“Whatever art comes out of there, whether it be written or music or paintings, using that to publicize the state park system and with notoriety hopefully comes additional funding, comes additional support,” Eberhardt says.

Eight artists from across the state applied for the residency and all were admitted for this startup year. Each will stay in the cabin for up to two weeks through September.

For Baltuck, the park has been one inspiration after another.

“This place is just alive, everywhere you look, there’s something flowering, jumping, creeping around in the woods, flying past the window,” Baltuck says.

And she’s trying to capture as much of it as possible. Baltuck describes it as gathering starts — the beginnings of paintings she’ll finish later.

Inside the cabin, unfinished works are laid on a bench or leaned against walls. She counts how many there are out loud.

“Eleven this first week, plus I’m doing a series of little wildflower drawings,” Baltuck says. “This is supercharged for me. I’m going to have to go back to town and get more canvas because I’ve just about used up what I brought that I thought would last the whole 15 days.”

Baltuck has done other artist residencies. She’s been in the middle of the desert at Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, in sand dunes above the Arctic Circle in Alaska’s Kobuk Valley National Park and once spent three months in Norway. Baltuck says each has shown her windows into different lives.

As the tide comes in, Baltuck gathers her art supplies. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
As the tide comes in, Baltuck gathers her art supplies. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

For this residency, when she’s not on the rocks painting or at the easel inside the cabin, she’s on the deck sipping coffee. She watches people fishing and “the eagles,” Baltuck says. “They’re sometimes right up in the trees right over here and the evening is when they swoop back and forth, and I can see whales. And it’s always changing, whether it’s a beautiful sunset or just the clouds, how deep they settle on the mountains.”

More than once, Baltuck calls the residency a gift – a gift of no distractions, no internet, no phone ringing, nobody waiting on you. It’s also a gift of time.

“It’s so neat to settle into an experience of observing nature for hours, just looking at the same scene for hours and just knowing you have that time. There’s no rushing out here,” Baltuck says.

The only concern, she says, is the tide. When the water comes up by your feet, it’s time to move.

Baltuck’s work during the residency depict scenes of the park. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
Baltuck’s work during the residency depict scenes of the park. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)