Written by Ryan Morse. Photos by Lione Clare.

The stillness and beauty of the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness has long been the source of inspiration for artists, storytellers, and activists. When artists Eric and Pam Bealer left their Sea Pony Farm homestead in Phonograph Creek to the Living Wilderness Fund, Sitka Conservation Society saw this as an opportunity to continue their artistic legacies. This special place outside of K'udeis X'é, Pelican, is now a retreat for artists, writers, and people of different backgrounds who we can introduce to the Tongass. In turn, perhaps those that visit will take their experiences, share them widely, and advocate for the Tongass and Wilderness. 

Throughout 2021, we had the opportunity to host a variety of advocates, artists, and storytellers at Sea Pony Farm. With support from the Alaska Conservation Foundation and Ayana Young of the ‘For the Wild’ podcast, we hosted changemakers Julian Brave Noisecat, Maia Wikler, and Ruth Miller. We also created opportunities for local Sitka artists including  Steve Lawrie and Norm Campbell to experience artist residencies at Phonograph Creek.

In July, Norm and Steve arrived by floatplane to Lisianski Inlet. As they unloaded on the beach, they were greeted by sunshine and beautiful weather  – something that is, as Norm jokes, “almost unheard of in Southeast Alaska.” This good weather stayed with them for the first four days of their residency, allowing them to make artwork both inside and outside of the homestead.

Norm spent much of these first four days outside drawing trees. “It’s not a new thing for anyone who knows me,” says Norm, “but these trees were special. There was this group of spruce trees adjacent to the Bealer house. They were beautiful, solid, healthy trees with some redness that I don't remember seeing in a lot of other spruce trees.”

Norm Campbell sharing his artwork with Greta Healy.

While Norm was entranced by the natural environment of Phonograph Creek, Steve found himself drawn to the physical built environment that the Bealers created. Doing a painting a day, he focused on the home and outlying properties, such as the shed and barn. Much of the property was made from logs that Eric and Pam salvaged from the beaches and milled. “For me, Pam’s presence was pretty strong,” says Steve, “Eric is something of a known quantity in my mind, while Pam I knew nothing about. But being there, you can definitely feel her.” One example of Pam’s presence was the cast iron stove. “My impression is that this was Pam’s spot. I’m sure Eric could whip up a meal as good as anybody, but this felt like her to me. Eric and Pam – their presence is everywhere here.”

“Knowing who Eric and Pam were was important to our experiences,” reflects Norm, “I'm a person who believes in signs. As I was sitting on a chair drawing these trees, I said, ‘Eric, send me a sign that you're around.’ Minutes later, a little hummingbird flies up, hovers for a minute next to me and leaves. And we did see other hummingbirds but very, very few. So I took that as a sign that Eric was around and approved of us being there.”


Steve Lawrie's paintings.

After nine days at Phonograph Creek, Norm and Steve returned to Sitka. For Norm, who was flying  to Atlanta to visit family upon his return, it was something of a culture shock. “Phonograph Creek was so quiet and beautiful. Once you’re there, you’re there. To drop yourself in an urban setting a few days later was like going to the moon.” 

A few months after their return from Sea Pony Farm, Norm and Steve presented and showcased their paintings, drawings, and experiences at the Island Artist Gallery. They also gave an artists talk hosted by the gallery in partnership with SCS. As the fall days were gradually turning to winter, there was a bustle of light, laughter, and warmth coming from downtown Sitka, where locals and visitors could stop at the gallery, see the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness in the art it inspired, and learn about the legacy of Pam and Eric Bealer’s homestead. 

Steve Lawrie sharing his experience with visitors at the Island Artist Gallery.

“This was a pivotal art experience for me, and for Steve as well,” reflects Norm. “The physical beauty of Phonograph was the thing that moved me the most, Being immersed in that physical environment in a way that you can't quite be when you're in a studio.” For Steve, this residency provided him with an unexpected gift. “One thing that struck me about that visit was I painted buildings, and I don't usually do that” he says. “I mostly paint people or organic shapes like people, and I discovered I'm not at all afraid of doing structures.”

Connecting people with the Tongass has long been an important part of the Sitka Conservation Society: our founders used to guide people to West Chichagof and then sent them back home to advocate to their Congress members to make it a Wilderness.  Their success taught us that firsthand experiences like the ones Norm and Steve had in the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness create lasting impacts that not only inspire the people we connect with these places, but also those who they share their experiences with. In the past two years, we have successfully hosted sixteen different artists and changemakers at the Phonograph Creek property. We are grateful to all who have helped make these residencies happen, as well as those who have made generous contributions to the Living Wilderness Fund and helped make this project possible. And especially, a humble and heartfelt thank you to Eric and Pam Bealer, who left this property to us to continue to advocate for the places they loved.

Learn more about the Sea Pony Farm property here.