Namesake mountain drew shorebird artist to Alaska

The Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival featured artists have much in common in their choice of subject — shorebirds, of course — but Mary Bee Kaufman, this year’s featured artist, stands out among them in one way: She’s the only featured artist to have an Alaska peak named after her. 

It’s that mountain that brought Kaufman up to Alaska.

Located just west of Lake Peters and Lake Schrader in the Brooks Range, Mount Mary got its name when Kaufman’s father, James W. Bee, explored the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 1951 and 1952. A field biologist and author of “The Mammals of the North Slope,” Bee named many features after family members. 

Born, raised and educated in Lawrence, Kan., Kaufman, 61, graduated with a bachelor of science degree in geology from the University of Kansas. She came up to Alaska in 1986. Bush pilot Doug Stern flew her to the base of the mountain in late May.

“I went to climb my mountain. It turned out across the way was Mount Chamberlain,” she said.

She and Stern bagged that peak instead and never climbed Mount Mary.

“It’s hanging out there. I’ve got it to do,” Kaufman said.

That adventure led to a life in Alaska, mostly in the Denali National Park area. She met her husband, photographer Steve Kaufman, while working at the Kantishna Roadhouse. She put together a natural history program at Kantishna and developed a guiding program there.

Coming to Alaska fulfilled an urge to get closer to the natural world that became more intense after college. She worked with the Girl Scouts, as an archaeologist and naturalist, and did land use mapping in Nepal.

“When I came up to Alaska, that’s when I started looking more at natural history,” Kaufman said. “It gave me the opportunity of really sketching and looking at a variety of things in the natural world.”

Her father also did field sketching and influenced her. She began doing sketches as a young girl.

“It comes naturally,” she said.

Steve had bought a cabin in Homer out East End Road, and they started coming down here in 1997, wintering in Homer and spending summers in Denali National Park. 

“I was like ‘Oh my God,’” she said of first seeing Kachemak Bay. “I started working with the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies and all these amazing organizations that make Homer so healthy.”

The Kaufmans now spend most of their time in a house off the grid south of Denali at the south end of Broad Pass.

Kaufman began doing watercolor paintings when she took a class in Homer with the late Paula Dickey.

“It was like a whole new world. That’s when I started getting into these bird paintings and illustrations,” Kaufman said. “The paintings come out of a combination of techniques I’ve learned here from the arts community, from Paula Dickey.”

With her husband, Kaufman travels frequently, photographing, guiding and writing. She has written the text for some of Steve’s photo essays in magazines like Geo. She also keeps travel journals and draws.

“I’ve always journaled,” Kaufman said. “Whenever I go on a trip I just fill these eight-and-a-half by eleven sketchbooks.”

As a naturalist, Kaufman said she is drawn to observing and sketching birds. She described her home near Denali in terms of the birds she sees there: two species of swans, lesser yellow legs, Bonaparte gulls, Pacific loons, herring gulls and ravens.

“Birds just become part of your lifestyle, especially every spring,” she said. “I started to sketch more birds. It became part of my sketching on a regular basis.”

Kaufman did this year’s shorebird festival poster and T-shirt design of a red knot, illustrating the theme “from Baja to Beaufort: Every wingbeat counts.”

Lately Kaufman has become interested in quilting, particularly the idea of deconstructed quilts as seen in the work of Ree Nancarrow, another Denali area artist.

“You work with a palette of colors and create these shapes and then cut it up and reconstruct it,” Kaufman said.

One piece in her show uses that technique. It’s an illustration of a circle surrounding a shorebird in flight, but the circle has been divided into squares and rearranged.

“I cut it up and reconstructed it with a sense of more broken flow, but yet you still get a sense of flow,” she said.

That uses a lesson Dickey taught her, Kaufman said.

“The one thing I learned from Paula is to keep it simple,” she said. “Use a shape and go with that shape and try not to keep it from being too complex.”

Kaufman has a show, “Peeps, Pilferers, Paddlers and Banditry, ” on display through June 5 at Fireweed Gallery. As part of her work with the shorebird festival, Kaufman teaches a class, “Drawing in the Field,” from 9:30 a.m.-10:30 a.m. Saturday, meeting at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitors Center before heading out to sketch birds and nature. Kaufman scheduled her class to follow John Martin’s “Bird Anatomy for Artists,” meeting from 8:30-9:30 a.m. Saturday, also at Islands and Ocean.

“People will have the opportunity to learn about the physiology about birds and then get out in the field with me,” Kaufman said. “We’re hoping to make this a package here.”

Martin’s class is free and Kaufman’s class is $5, space available. Register through shorebird headquarters at the Homer Chamber of Commerce.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.

such as that of a pair of horned grebes, above.

such as that of a pair of horned grebes, above.