In this chapter of Diary of a Stealth Sketcher I am honored to bring you an interview with guest artist Mary Ida Henrikson.
I met Mary Ida Henrikson in 1970, when she was completing her MFA at Claremont Graduate University. After graduate school, she made her living on the ocean, on the pipeline, and in towns and cities all over Alaska.
Now she resides in her home town of Ketchikan, where she is a loved and respected member of the artist community.
As her writing and paintings attest, she is deeply connected to the ways of life, history, and complex ecosystem of the shores and forests of Southeast Alaska.
Mary Ida Henrikson was in Anchorage this week to launch her book, The Fire Trees of Southeast Alaska.
I interviewed her about that project, her explorations and adventures, and how she has developed as an artist since we met.
CL: Mary Ida, what is a fire tree?
MIH: A tree, usually on the coast, that contains a large chamber, burned from the inside out. The native people of Southeast Alaska, the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian, stored burning coals in these trees. They lived in a rain forest, so they devised this system for keeping their coals dry. I speculate that fire trees were also used for lighthouses and for communication.
photo: Becky Bentley
This is the first fire tree Mary Ida studied. It is near her coastal cabin home.
As part of her investigation, Mary Ida began painting and drawing fire trees.
CL: Why did you draw and paint them?
MIH: They awakened my curiosity: about the unknown Alaska, about what I didn’t know. As I worked on the drawings and paintings, they informed me about what I was seeing. For instance . . . I noticed that the notched vents in the trees were positioned in relation to the entrances as if they were lined up along compass headings. I found cases where the entrance and vent hole were aligned to either due south or due east. In the tree shown below, these openings channel the sun’s rays at the summer solstice.
Three Trees Fire Tree, 14″ x 12″, pen and ink on paper
Mary Ida discovered more important details through her artistic process. While making the drawing above, she saw that what had looked like random horizontal scars were actually marks made when three young trees were lashed together, so that they would grow into a chambered fire tree.
Totem Tree, Winter Solstice, 36″ x 24″, oil on canvas
The totem face in this tree also came into focus for her only after she began drawing the tree’s textural details. She realized that this figure, now almost completely eroded, had once been clearly visible.
Mary Ida completed a series of four paintings of this totem tree. The first of the series, Totem Tree, Autumn Eclipse, is on the cover of her book. The title comes from the eclipse image at the upper left corner. Her impulse to include such details led to her further insights.
Totem Tree, Summer Comet, 36″ x 26″, oil on canvas
The shape in the upper left corner of this painting refers to a comet that came into view over Ketchikan.
CL: What is the story behind the comet that appears in this painting?
MIH: I found myself spontaneously including astronomical elements in my paintings, without a specific meaning in mind. . . . In 2007, when I saw the comet, I included it as a sort of diary entry. This was one of the details I recorded intuitively, but that later fell into place as part of the fire tree narrative. I knew that comets had been understood as portents by early peoples. This felt to me like a portent of the disaster that came to the native peoples of Southeast Alaska: the arrival of smallpox on ships from Europe. The final painting of the series refers directly to the loss of entire villages in that event. The totem on this fire tree may have witnessed that history.
CL: What other conclusions came to you as you drew and painted the trees?
MIH: I have a theory that the trees were used for food preparation and preservation. The trees bear direct evidence that people collected the carbon in their charred interiors, most likely for making pigment. I also sense the possibility of ritual uses, such as an initiation site for girls entering womanhood. I have asked elders, anthropologists, and geologists about these possibilities. Their consensus is that my findings justify further research.
My book is unique in that it is the first published, systematic identification of red cedar fire trees in the Tongas National Forest. I want this story to be carried on by the people to whom it really belongs, the young people who are native to this region.
Kinetic Grove, colored pencil and graphite on paper, 14″ x 20″
About this drawing, Mary Ida says, “It felt as though something was emerging from under the forest floor.”
CL: You said before that this project reawakened your curiosity. How did your work on the fire trees influence your sense of yourself as an artist?
MIH: I had become bored with painting. When my friend Snapper Carson, a Ketchikan mariner, told me about the tree near my cabin, it shocked me into a new sense of curiosity. I found out that I didn’t know all there was to know about my close environment. I wanted to share that experience, and I knew that painting was the best way for me. Then the paintings took on a life of their own. This was a jump, a leap to a new level. It freed my imagination and intensified my contact with reality.
Moonlight Ride, Settler’s Cove, oil on canvas, 16″ x 20″
“The blue is the color of the Ketchikan sky on summer evenings. The viewer moves out of the shadows into luminescence. These are the fire trees at the upper parking lot of Settler’s Cove. The white and red line recalls headlights and tail lights.”
Lighting the Grove, oil on canvas, 10″ x 20″
“A study of the grove near my cabin. A study of the changes.”
CL: When this project took you to a new level of freedom, imagination, and reality, what happened for you at that level?
MIH: The paintings told me about other uses of the fire trees. I have lived remotely in these forests for years at a time. The answers came from within me, an experienced painter and informed naturalist.
I have friends who are geologists, anthropologists, ecologists, hunters, writers, and mariners. They too have great curiosity . . . Like me, their preparation and curiosity brings them epiphanies and revelations, which they set out to test.
CL: How does your process as an artist fit in with those lines of inquiry?
MIH: Art comes first. What the artist creates is the first hint of something new. Philosophy comes second. The philosophers explain the new concept. Then the scientists research the concept. They observe the processes and find the facts that support or falsify the concept. But art comes first! (Laughs) That might be my greatest contribution to metaphysics!
Laser Forest (photo of the work in progress), oil on canvas, 20″ x 30″ Collection of the Tongas Historical Museum
“This painting sums up the ideas that came to me about the fire trees. It includes beach-combed objects, a red laser referring to navigation sight lines, a superhero face, a raven, and a dog salmon. There is a Tlingit word for the white spot on the salmon fin, Keek Shaan Han. It expresses the constant change in life.”
CL: By finding, drawing, painting, and revealing those trees you rediscovered the excitement of the artistic process. And you affirmed for yourself that, in human understanding, art comes first.
Then I had a further revelation. Ati Maier, who was the artist in residence at University of Alaska in Fairbanks, came to Ketchikan to talk about her work. When we asked how long each of her paintings took, she usually replied “two months.” Hearing that gave me the answer to what had been missing from my paintings: time. I had thought that the idea, the concept was the most important part of the painting. Then I understood that the concept is only the starting point.
In the act of painting, the artist takes responsibility to bring forth, refine and integrate every implication of the concept into a coherent statement, into something that can eventually enter into the mundane. To me, this is much like the scientific method.
My paintings are no longer so easy. They take two months to finish.
CL: The next two paintings are among your most recent works. Please tell us about them.
MIH: These two paintings came after my insight about time. Both have a grid format. The first is concerned with ocean pollution. I have included plastic shards, salmon, and a reference to extinction: a mammoth tusk in the salmon’s mouth. Within the painting are flights of fancy that inform the viewer of problems, solutions, and needs.
Forever Stamp, Dog Salmon, oil on canvas, 30″ x 40″
The second painting, also in grid format, has three sections of graduated size, linked by the semicircle of a compass. Each section is its own painting, with its own surreal elements. The grid format introduces a challenge: though there are separate paintings on the canvas, I could not alter one without altering the rest. This is a hemlock grove I have painted often, so I was painting something familiar but segmenting it in a way that invited the painting to define itself within the elements of art.
Compass Grove, oil on canvas, 24 x 36
CL: It sounds like you let the painting tell you how the elements wanted to behave, both within the segments and in relation to all the segments.
MIH: The elements are color, texture, line, and now I am fully utilizing the element of time. In these paintings, color is part of the element of time. I am layering my colors, using transparent glazes. When the glazes are dry I often dig back into the color underneath. Time is a factor in several ways: waiting for colors to dry, layering colors one over another, and digging through the layers. It feels historic. Most of the time the first color I lay down is planned, then the layers are more spontaneous. As I reveal the colors beneath, it’s experimental, haphazard, exciting. The haphazard plays off the structure of the grid. I get a visual playground. The colors pop and vibrate.
Anchorage artist Margret Hugi-Lewis once called me “fearless”. I approach my artistic process fearlessly. Over the two months, the initial concept transforms, is enhanced, made richer over time. In the act of becoming, it approaches the most personal level of truth. An artist gets to this moment by spending the time to investigate fearlessly.
CL: And the painting tells you . . . ?
MIH: The painting is telling me how to finish my life’s work.
Links to more information about Mary Ida Henrikson:
Her website: https://www.maryidahenrikson.com
KPU TV (Ketchikan) trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bBv5_fkEfQ
Recording of the panel discussion at launch of Mystery of the Fire Trees: (play track #2) https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/connecting-alaska-nature-environment/id739954932?mt=10%C2%A0