14 Miles: Alaska artists consider distance and the role of the arts in a time of pandemic
By Brendan Jones
“As artists at this time, we can be the mirror, the door, the window,” Frankenstein told me. “Right now, we might be a door, creating a way for people to walk through these tough times. That’s always been something that has interested me.”
Compared to other states and the rest of the world, Alaska has been relatively untouched by the virus. As the rest of the country has 129,000 deaths at press time, Alaska has had just twelve, with fewer than 800 cases. COVID-19 threatens to kill half a million people across the earth.
Nevertheless, the virus has altered how Alaskans, who often live in small communities historically susceptible to virus, engage with the world. Libraries, cafés, docks, bars—the same institutions Frankenstein investigated with 14 Miles—are suddenly endangered. How do artists across the state respond?
“On the one hand, as a filmmaker, I could do a video postcard of ‘What I did in quarantine,’” Frankenstein says. “But that’s not enough. We need something more right now. Our culture is going through a shift, and both documenting and trying to understand this shift is critical. As artists, we’re going need to start answering questions such as, ‘What does it mean to live in a post-corona time?’ And, ‘What is community, and what can it be?’”
As medical workers put their lives at risk, writers, painters, musicians, and filmmakers are naturally viewed as “non-essential.” They watch from the sidelines as lives are lost and saved. Exhibitions, performances, and readings are cancelled. Artists as a stripe tend to socially isolate—it’s endemic to the species. But what should the time be used for? To build a record of the days, with the goal of arriving at a better understanding of this fraught moment? To finish a novel gathering dust in the bottom drawer? Or perhaps the best thing to do is step away from art, and give a hand at the local food bank. If not that, then use art as a salve—more like Bob Hope performing for the troops, there to give a laugh, create a distraction from the misery and hopelessness at hand.
Sitka artist Nicholas Galanin had a series of flights booked around the world to attend and display his work at international art openings. The Biennale of Art in Sydney, Australia, Galanin told me, was the only one that didn’t cancel. He has since returned to Sitka.
“One of the things both artists and Alaskans are really good at is working with what’s in front of us, and making use of what’s around you. This moment tests the ability for an artist to be resilient,” Galanin said.
He’s been using his time to move his shop to a bigger space near home, fishing with his kids, pressing a record, giving virtual artistic talks, and creating new work. He has an exhibit with the Anchorage Museum that is online.
“As artists, we’re not performing in front of people anymore,” Galanin said. “We’ve had to make a shift. It’s our job now to capture stories. I mean, that’s what we do. Right? We use the moment.”
Tom Kizzia, a former longtime journalist for the Anchorage Daily News, and author of the best-selling Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier, deployed his “journalistic chops” to help the Homer Foundation, on whose board he serves. The foundation runs a COVID Response Fund. Kizzia wrote an op-ed for the Homer News on the town’s response to the pandemic and the role of the fund.
“The basic job of writing is enhanced by the forced isolation,” Kizzia said. “It’s just a little hard to write something that has any sort of conclusion when we’re all just kind of hanging out there wondering what’s going to happen next.”
In May, Kizzia also wrote a piece for the Anchorage Daily News series “Our Towns.” Departing from the traditional journalist third-person point of view, Kizzia wrote from the first person. Much like Frankenstein in 14 Miles, Kizzia used snippets of life in Homer to help draw a larger picture of what’s happening in a small community.
“The shift to a new voice was an opportunity given where I am in my career, but also felt like the right response to the shared pandemic,” Kizzia wrote in an email.
Alaska novelist Don Rearden, whose 2011 book The Raven’s Gift [see page 24] envisioned a snow-swept landscape following a global pandemic, sees the role of the artist as a guide, providing a number of different services—one of them being distraction.
“The frontline workers are doing what they can to keep us fed and safe—keeping the lights on—so at the very least we can use our talents to bring perspective, levity, love, and perhaps a momentary escape to everyone,” Rearden wrote in an email. “I love how artists of all genres have taken to social media to share their work with the world, not only sharing their work, but also their struggles and concerns.”
Rearden, who said he’d gladly trade COVID for a virus that would make people want to read more, agreed with Frankenstein’s assessment of art as transitive: a vehicle for understanding, and moving through a difficult moment. He also said that the virus, instead of causing people to dismiss art, might, in the end, make people value artists more.
“This pandemic has the world locked away and consuming media... As we turn away more and more from the written word (books!) and to digital media, it’s the understanding that someone wrote the content and that writers and artists play an important role.”
But is that role as simple as distraction? When hardship plagues a nation—indeed, a species that has dominated the natural world for the past two hundred years—perhaps the artist plays the role of Shakespeare’s Fool, both capturing attention, and presenting truth “at a slant”—observing the situation from a new and unexpected angle. We can leave pure distraction to Moonpie Starbox, the Dachshund on tiktok singing Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.”
“But I think it’s more than that,” Galanin said. “It’s not just about getting attention, or even holding it. Our role as artists has always been to collectively engage community. That means you step up and give support where support can’t be found.”
The Irish poet Eavan Boland, who died in April, put forth a similar argument. She said that art (speaking specifically of poetry) constitutes a powerful voice when it introduces what Boland called tonal rectitude. “[Tone] grows more sure, and more painfully, from the ethics of the art. Its origins must always be in a suffered world rather than a conscious craft.”
In other words, in order to achieve success in one’s craft, one must experience the world in all its vicissitudes, the good and the bad, the pain and the pleasure. All of it shows us who we are as a people, as a nation, as a global community.
This privileging of real-life experience suggests a perpetual dance between isolation and engagement, presence and absence—a dance Kizzia alluded to in his suggestion of artists valuing alone-time. Solitary and intentional creation are balanced by lived experience in the community, at the libraries, cafes, gyms: all those aspects 14 Miles worked so hard to record.
“So much art is socially really intense followed by long periods of deep reflection and alone time,” says Roger Schmidt, who runs the Sitka Fine Arts Camp (SFAC), where I have taught for five years. “With the virus, I feel like now is the time for that.”
While SFAC has been offering an eight-week correspondence writing course, Schmidt said that camp has largely gone quiet.
“What we offer every year is not something that can be replicated by online sessions. It’s just not the same. All our business is in the business of social nearness. We’re just waiting.”
Schmidt has furloughed the staff, putting the program into a holding pattern, and has been spending more time with his trombone, the instrument he studied at Oberlin Conservatory for Music.
“We need to be in the business of how we get kids back to experiencing their lives. We should put that in the primary position. That should be the question we ask ourselves every time, so we can get back to making the artists that will help us understand this moment in the future.”
Nobel-prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney, who was deeply interested in this question of the role of the artist in times of need, wrote that “moments of freedom” from pain in art come from “a sense of the complications and difficulties of life.” In other words, as the poet Rainier Maria Rilke suggested, “trust in what is difficult.” Art is an accumulation of knowledge, followed by reflection, and sharing. This cycle allows listeners and viewers the opportunity to move beyond the present moment. Despite what Proust in his cork room might argue, art does not come out of stasis, or solitary confinement.
In his final essay in The Government of the Tongue, Heaney brings this idea to life by recounting a passage in the Bible, in which a woman accused of adultery is brought before a mob. Standing in front of the crowd, Jesus draws words in the sand. Heaney points out that we never learn what these words might be. Nevertheless, the mob disperses.
Heaney goes on to write that the role of the artist should be someone who can “hold attention for a space, function[ing] not as a distraction, but as pure concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back on ourselves.”
Understood like this, art works as a catalyst, a combustible engine for simultaneous realization, and self-realization.
In one of our conversations, as she reflected back on our original meeting in 1997 over Carved From the Heart, Frankenstein emphasized her belief in something similar—that a finished piece of art should be active, holding attention. Offering, in exchange for attention, a new awareness.
“At a certain point, people really started to engage,” Frankenstein said. “They’d tune in to see what was next. People’s response fed us. Response led to interest and followers. I think the episodes changed the way people saw a place. You can only hope that happens.”
I can recall in Sitka, between 2017 and 2019, the sense of anticipation as people waited for the release of 14 Miles, which came out on Thursdays. As soon as an episode posted, long exchanges spooled out, allowing community members to visit issues through an online forum that now seems prescient. Some episodes have clocked over 30,000 views on Facebook.
Frankenstein, who has a degree in Visual Anthropology from the University of Southern California, says that projects like 14 Miles are critical in moments of loss.Like the carver from Craig, the act of original creation—art—directs loss. The totem conducted despair, orienting artist and community-member simultaneously.
“At the end of the day, it’s about building empathy,” Frankenstein said. “Giving people voice. Creating understanding.”
Rearden also pointed out the importance of creating a “record” of the moment—far from an objective exercise.
“The perspective of artists and their work has been an important barometer throughout history, and it would appear the importance for that role is only growing,” Rearden wrote. “The artist’s role during this pandemic is to help us all understand and negotiate our circumstances a little better.”
Perhaps, as Rearden suggests, art allows us to understand change without fear. It is transitive. It “gives life to supreme fictions without which we are unable to conceive of it,” as the poet Wallace Stevens writes. So often viewed as an alternative to reality, art actually becomes a way of understanding, and moving through a difficult moment. People just need to join together.
Which brings up the main problem—which is, of course, distance, when the virus spreads so easily. Luckily, distance has been a challenge that Alaska has been negotiating since statehood. Organizations like 49 Writers are used to bringing folks together.
Since the beginning of April, 49 Writers, a home for Alaska writers and readers, has been publishing “Writing the Distance,” a series of broadsides by writers. On May 3rd, John Morgan published a Zuihitsu, a Japanese poetic form comprised of an aggregate of prose sections focusing on a single subject—which was, naturally, the virus.
I said, “I hope he gets it."
She said, “I hope he gets it and it kills him.”
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far, just let him suffer a bit.”
“I want him dead!”
“I’m shocked. A nice person like you…”
Meanwhile, Bunnell Art Gallery in Homer, directed by Asia Freeman, has started a weekly podcast called “Inspiration in Isolation.” The innovative program examines how artists are staying active during the pandemic. Freeman also told me that the gallery continues to pay artists on contract, and has created an interface to sell art online.
Bunnell has also been instrumental in the creation of banners and installations honoring health care workers. Hundreds of handmade postcards have been distributed to local hospital and food service workers and emergency personnel. The gallery also collects donations for artists struggling due to the cancellation of programs.
Rearden, who hopes to take advantage of this virus to finish his novel told from the point of view of a whale, wrote, “I think the situation of hunkering down or sheltering in place creates an atmosphere ripe for the creation of beautiful and meaningful writing.”
This raises the question of what effects will the virus, and the quarantine, have on people? It has already fostered a mistrust and fear that anyone could be a potential carrier; each person must be treated as a mortal threat. Particularly with kids; I have two, ages three and five. How will the pandemic affect their worldview?
This is a question that concerns Schmidt. “The kids I’ve spoken to, they’re somewhere between really mad, and really sad. Especially when you feel like the current world isn’t able to handle it. They will have a critical role in getting us out of this disaster. In fact we will lose something in our world if we don’t let them, as artists, lead the way to bringing people close together again.”
There is just no substitute for person-to-person interactions, especially in Alaska, whose inhabitants place such a high premium on closeness of community, Schmidt believes.
“There’s the movement toward distance learning. But I think we’ll all realize there’s no substitution for genuine in-person contact. Going into the bookstore and buying the book. That experience in itself. We take it for granted, but that is something that could be forgotten. If kids don’t have the experience of deep and meaningful social interaction, they won’t know what they’re missing. Then they won’t advocate for the value of connecting people down the line.”
Having recently turned 42, I often wonder how my life might have turned out differently if I hadn’t connected with people in Sitka at the age of 19. Taking on assignments such as meeting Frankenstein that rainy November morning and discussing Carved From the Heart.
Over the years, town has changed. A cellphone tower rises over a mountain. No one uses CDs at the radio station, they just plug in a playlist. Sheldon Jackson College, where I lived, has become the Sitka Fine Arts Campus.
While I never went to an arts camp, I recall exactly what Schmidt addresses about being young: how every moment was critical, and also how I was learning to shift my focus according to what the moment presented. Dropping out of college felt right, buying a ticket on a Greyhound felt right. Taking the job at the newspaper—all of it felt like part of some larger plan that could change at any moment.
For what is art, after all, other than being both nimble and constant at the same time? Able to change your approach to the project, while also not losing sight of the end-goal. Especially in times of hardship. Flights might have been stopped, camp shuttered, galleries closed. But we, as humans, continue to create, in order to show, to tell each other that we’re okay. That we’re still here. A way to acknowledge our own changes, while also appreciating our togetherness, what joins us.
“Art, at its best, puts us in a social mirror, an empathetic position,” Frankenstein told me in our last conversation. “In a way, then, art is no different from the virus. Both remind us why we need to be able to be together.”
Brendan Jones of Sitka is the author of the novel The Alaskan Laundry, awarded the Alaskana Prize by the Alaska Library Association. He has also written for The New York Times, NPR, and Smithsonian Magazine.