As part of the Pratt Museum’s mission to strengthen relationships between people and place, art exhibits there often make some connection to the land or Kachemak Bay’s natural history.
In that sense, Kathy Smith’s solo art show, “Rivers of Ice,” an exploration in paintings of Alaska glaciers, hits its mark like the terminus of a glacier marching to sea. At the heart of her show is the idea that not only are Alaska’s glaciers changing, but they’re fading away.
“It certainly is timely,” Smith said Tuesday. “It seems like all the science lately has been dealing with climate change in one way or another. … Every time I looked at a newspaper or online, there was always something about ice melting somewhere.”
Her first Pratt solo show, “Rivers of Ice” uses a lot of the tricks in Smith’s toolbox to examine glaciers. Active in the Homer art scene for more than 25 years, Smith has become known for her mastery of encaustics, the ancient art form that uses melted wax and pigments as paint. One of the founding members of the Homer Life Drawing Group, Smith gets back to those roots with several portraits set in glacial landscapes.
She also has created paper, wax and oil tapestries that in their movement evoke the slow movement of glaciers. And like a good Alaskan, Smith paints landscapes memorable for her command of color and light.
“I was meditating the whole time I was doing the show,” Smith said. “Working on the paintings, I was thinking of them as living things, because they are. It’s very hard for me to explain.”
Smith lived in Anchorage for five years in the 1950s when she was a child, and has memories of visiting Portage Glacier.
“You could park in the parking lot and walk right up and practically touch the icebergs,” she said. “It was a lot different than it is now.”
Smith didn’t come back to Alaska until 1968, when she stayed for six months, and didn’t come back for good until 1972. She met her husband, Maynard, at the downtown Book Cache, an Anchorage bookstore, and they moved to Homer in 1974.
The daughter of a painter, Smith said, “I kind of picked it up from her.” She had painted in her youth, taking classes over the years, but didn’t start painting seriously until her children were grown. She has shown widely in both solo and group shows at Homer as well as statewide galleries.
The idea of focusing on glaciers for a solo exhibit came out of paintings of glaciers she did for a group show in Anchorage.
“For this show, I took a lot of photographs,” she said. “I went up on the glacier at McCarthy, the Kennicott and Root Glaciers. … I took a lot of pictures of my friends, of the ice, of the leaves on the ice — just different things.”
The show also allowed her to get back into painting in oils.
“That’s been a favorite thing of mine,” she said. “Really, over the past few years I’ve been doing things in wax and mixed media, not too much brush work. I wanted to do brush work for this show.”
“Rivers of Ice” takes a perspective from the intimate to the expansive. “Prayer Flags for Glaciers,” a series of prints — another one of her techniques — looks at those leaves on the ice. “On the Root Glacier” shows a group exploring the ice. The way the figures spread out, with one person tiny and almost lost in the distance, gives a sense of the scale.
The portraits respond to that “relationships between people and place” mission statement prompt. It’s a reminder that though Smith’s recent encaustics might be abstract or impressionistic, she hasn’t forgotten the basics of painting the human form.
“I did a lot of life drawing,” Smith said. “I’ve taken drawing classes. It’s like anything else. You have to keep your hand in it if you want to keep good at it.”
One painting, “Exit Glacier Tour, Late September,” shows a group of tourists in matching translucent ponchos near the toe of the glacier back when it was possible to walk up to it. In their white, ghostly garb the figures almost seem to be icebergs from the glacier. Smith said she painted that from a photograph she took.
“They begged to be put on the canvas,” she said.
Smith also captures an aspect of glaciers that fascinate many: the amazing hues of blue, green and white as air bubbles get crushed out of compacting ice. Some paintings are studies of those colors.
“It seemed as if there were really a lot of different colors,” Smith said of glaciers. “You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to use blue and white.’ There are many shades. I love color — I missed using red, for instance. I tried to make it interesting for me and the viewer, to use more colors.”
While many of her paintings are realistic, Smith didn’t want to make them too realistic.
“A lot of the glaciers are dirty,” she said. “I couldn’t just make them ugly and melting. There’s a lot more to them. What’s the point of going if you’re only going to see the dirt?”
Along with “Rivers of Ice,” the Pratt has been offering programs related to glaciers. Last week, geologist and ecologist Ed Berg did a talk, “Grewingk Glacier: Then and Now,” about how the glacier has changed. At 6:30 p.m. Nov. 19, the Homer Youth String Orchestra Club does a fall concert and a screening of “Blue Ice,” a concert filmed at Grewingk Glacier. “Rivers of Ice” remains on exhibit through Dec. 28.
Smith said reception to her show has been strong.
“I was at the library and three or four people said to me, ‘I haven’t gotten to see your show yet, but three or four people have told me I have to see it. It’s wonderful,’” Smith said. “I am happy about how well received it’s been — and I do hope people will go visit glaciers.”