This story was originally published by the Daily Sitka Sentinel. Story written by Shannon Haugland. Photo above courtesy of Daily Sitka Sentinel/James Poulson.
Candle and flashlight.
The warmth and light
of fire. Twenty years
living without electricity:
it was possible. Living
with the land, living in
the wild, meant leaning
over the cycle of days
– Maite Lorente
The exhibition “The Squirrel and the Bear: Eric and Pam Bealer’s Life in the Tongass” opens Friday.
Viewers entering the makeshift gallery in the Venneberg building at 221 Harbor Drive will be greeted by dozens of colorful paintings by Stephen Lawrie, and poems by Maite Lorente illustrated by Lawrie’s art. The work was inspired by the Bealers, who lived in a remote area of the Tongass for 20 years and “who lived as close to the land as possible,” one organizer said.
The exhibit's grand opening is 5 to 8 p.m. “will inaugurate two weeks of celebrating the Bealers’ lives through their legacy gift to the Sitka Conservation Society.”
The exhibit includes the work of Pam and Eric, both of whom were accomplished artists. Eric was a wood engraver who captured the natural environment of northern Southeast Alaska; Pam was a fiber artist; and both were skilled woodworkers. One of Eric’s rowboats is on exhibit, as are felted portraits of the Bealers’ dog and pony. Eric’s engravings are paired with poems and reflections written by Pam. A film featuring clips of Pam and their two dogs, and their ponies, plays in the back part of the gallery.
The exhibit will be up through April 21.
Lawrie and Lorente created the exhibit, inspired by the time they spent on the five-acre property the Bealers gave to the Sitka Conservation Society when they died in 2018.
Photo by Ryan Morse.
SCS received notice of the Bealers’ intent:
“We leave our property and estate to the Sitka Conservation Society for the benefit of said organization, be they use it, rent it, or sell it. With all money’s going into the Living Wilderness Fund, so that they may continue to help and protect this land that (we) so love.”
The Bealer property is three miles south of Pelican on Chichagof Island, and adjacent to the West Chichagof Wilderness. Sitka Conservation Society Director Andrew Thoms said SCS was formed to create this wilderness area.
“The property is really special, it’s surrounded by the wilderness we work to protect,” Thoms said. “And the way the Bealers lived and built things was as much of a work of art as Eric and Pam’s art. It’s just a really special place.”
Both Lawrie and Lorente said they wanted to share through the exhibit some of what they felt after spending time on the property, about the couple who lived as self- sufficiently as possible, lived off the land as much as they could, created art and loved each other.
Photo by Ryan Morse.
Lawrie spent time on the property in late 2021 with fellow artist Norman Campbell, and produced a body of work that captures aspects of the Bealers’ lives.
Lorente went there earlier on a separate trip to help others make repairs, fix up the property and organize the Bealers’ papers, after SCS became owners. While Eric is the person most are familiar with – through his art – Lorente was also intrigued by Pam.
“You could totally feel Pam’s presence,” she said.
“Eric Bealer is well known for his work, but when we got there, all I could feel was Pam,” Lawrie agreed.
Lorente and Lawrie didn’t know each other well but had the common experience of spending time at the Bealers’, and getting to know the couple from what they created and left behind.
“When we talked about it, we thought we could get together with some kind of work that could combine paintings with their stories or words written by them,” Lorente said. “So that’s how we started.”
Photo by Ryan Morse.
Viewers will see parts of the Bealers’ world in the exhibit. Pam holding a full basket of nagoonberries or taking a bath in a small tub, Eric bent over a wood engraving, buildings on the property, the two sitting on benches. One of the paintings Lawrie calls “the goodbye painting” and depicts Pam sitting up, Eric lying down alongside Truffles the dog, all slightly floating above a blanket.
Lorente’s poems are written on paintings by Lawrie in the middle of the gallery, which they are calling hanging text tapestries.
Since 2018, the property has been used as a creative retreat and as a field station for stewardship activities on surrounding Tongass National Forest lands. The SCS website said the organization is “connecting artists, writers, and activists from diverse backgrounds and mediums who are involved in environmental work to the Tongass – people who will take the inspiration afforded to them through their experience, share it widely through myriad mediums, and advocate for this place.
“We were sort of – I’ve heard Andrew said – guinea pigs,” Lawrie said.
Lorente and Lawrie said their time on the property made a huge impression.
“I feel like they have helped me to connect with the Tongass in a way that I have not connected before,” Lorente said. “These are people who did not just live in the Tongass. They lived in a way that was natural. They took everything in, they made the best they could in their lives, they were able to create arts, build all kinds of things. They were two people who were so loyal in what they believed from the beginning of their lives until the end. ... On top of everything you have a story of two human beings who accompanied each other from the day they met. It was an extraordinary rich life in every way.”
As a librarian, Lorente said, she loved seeing books in every room, filled with notes, answering questions and helping the couple make their way in life.
Both said they expect to continue to feel a strong connection to the couple and the property.
Photos by Ryan Morse.
“They feel like family to me, it’s a family story in Alaska that I want to protect and take care of and bring over here (to share with Sitkans),” she said. “With Stephen’s paintings, that process has been so powerful.”
“I don’t think there’s any walking away from this,” Lawrie said.
The grand opening is one of several events scheduled in honor of the Bealers.
Others include an evening session dedicated to Eric Bealer’s wood engravings is 6 p.m. April 19 at at the Venneberg building.
At 6 p.m. April 21 at the Mean Queen there will be a talk about Sea Pony Farm property, which will include music, anecdotes about Pam and Eric, art and pies to celebrate their lives will be part of the evening.
A Bealer Landscape Reinterpretation at Sitka Rose Gallery during the same time that the exhibit is up, will open Friday.
Guided group visits to the art exhibit in the Venneberg gallery will be available through appointments with the artists.
Lawrie and Lorente thanked the Vennebergs for use of the gallery space. Lorente also thanked her mentors on the project, Marge and Dave Steward.
Those with questions about the exhibition and visits can call at (907) 738 7574 or go to stephenlawrie.com.
Story and headline photo © Daily Sitka Sentinel. Photo below by Ryan Morse.