In map making, artists depict the landscape with lines and shading. A city map can be all streets, but in the wilderness, cartographers add rivers and lakes, forests and grasslands, and ridges and valleys. The result can seem static, a map that comes alive only in the imagination of the reader.
That’s not so with the maps of Sarah Frary. In her new show at Bunnell Street Arts Center, “Lyrical Topography,” Frary shows Cook Inlet and Alaska as a landscape come alive.
Filmmaker Bjorn Olson asked Frary to draw a series of maps to illustrate his film, “In the Heart of Alaska,” about the circumnavigation of Cook Inlet by Seldovia explorers Brent Higman and Erin McKittrick and their two young children, Lituya and Katmai.
“It was an immense honor to be asked to do this,” Frary said. “It was like this big quilt project.”
Her maps are cartographically accurate and use nautical charts as a basis. She shows elevation not as contour lines, but as shadings of green, brown and gray. Ridges and peaks have a hard edge, like the crest of a skull or the face of bones — another media Frary also has explored.
In her artist’s statement, Frary said that “these flowing interpretations coalesced as I aligned the breadth of the landscape with my personal style, a style that conveys the earth as a living, thriving, beautiful and worthwhile entity.”
If one word can be used to describe Frary’s art, “flowing” would be the one. Like the rivers and ridges she shows in her maps, in most everything Frary draws and paints, lines swirl, circle and dance. It’s art that dares to be dynamic.
Frary, 29, was born in Delaware, where her father was stationed with the U.S. Air Force at Dover Air Base. She grew up around the country as her father and family moved from post to post. Self-taught as an artist, Frary said she’d always drawn.
“I was super nerdy as a kid,” she said.
At some point she became obsessed with Wyoming. Living in Louisville, Ky., where she worked as an apprentice tattoo artist, In 2010 Frary answered an ad on Twitter for an assistant from photographer and writer Shreve Stockton of Ten Sleep, Wyo. Stockton had become an internet sensation with her blog, The Daily Coyote, about a coyote, Charlie, she adopted. According to a story by CNN writer Linda Petty, Stockton didn’t promise a salary, but did offer a place to stay, a camp trailer named the Psychedelic Jellybean. Frary applied and got the chance.
“I headed West and never looked back,” she said.
Frary came to Alaska at the urging of a former boyfriend who said she would love it.
“I was very resistant until I came here the first time,” Frary said.
Ten Sleep didn’t quite fit her, Frary said.
“It was a small town. It didn’t have what I needed,” she said.
For a few years she wintered in Ninilchik and later Homer, spending the summers in Wyoming. She now lives here year round.
“I followed the vibe that you have up here — and Kachemak Bay,” Frary said. “Being in Homer totally transformed me. People here are loving and accepting.”
Frary now lives on a homestead beyond the end of Ohlson Mountain Road, a 1-mile walk in during break-up. An intense and dedicated art entrepreneur, Frary also has a studio, Shapeshift Studio, downstairs from Bunnell Street Arts Center in the Old Inlet Trading Post. Formerly known as A Muse Ink, also the name of her tattoo business, Frary said she’s making a shift in her art that the name reflects. She also has begun to use the artist name Sarah Tonin, a play on “serotonin,” the brain chemical that helps regulate well being and happiness.
While “Lyrical Topography” is a sparse and elegant exhibit of her art, Frary’s studio has a frenetic messiness. Sketches and watercolors cover the walls. Bones, skulls and feathers sit on shelves. A box holds prints and original drawings for sale. On one counter is perhaps her most well-recognized work of art, a KBBI 890 AM Public Radio mug she did the design for. In one corner she has her tattoo studio — neat, clean and orderly.
That’s another aspect of Frary’s art, tattooing. A work she did herself covers her left forearm and hand. Her ink has soft edges and repeats the flow of most of her work. The hand is like an X-ray of her bones, but it flows from what could be tree branches — or rivers. Frary started her tattoo studio when no one else in town did tatts, but with two more artists, she can be more selective in what she does.
“I don’t do projects that don’t resonate,” she said. “I’m picky. You should treat your body with respect.”
While she still works with current clients, Frary said she’s taking a sabbatical from tattoo art to focus more on projects like her maps. “Lyrical Topography” reflects a transformation in her art and perspective on life, she said. Also a writer, Frary did a blog, Spiral Unwinding, but has dropped that to work on other, more private writing. She’s been working on illustrated journals as well as private writing she’s not yet ready to try to get published.
“I’m in this huge transitional shift. This show has been a big opener to that,” she said. “There’s a lot of change happening now.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at email@example.com.
Watercolor, brush pen, black ink and acrylic paintings
Bunnell Street Arts Center
On exhibit through April
Also known as Sarah Tonin
/ A Muse Ink
Old Inlet Trading Post
Tattoo art, prints and painted skulls