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Rockwell Kent Symposium Looks at Time Spent in Alaskan Wilderness

kent alaska

Noted artist, author, illustrator and political activist Rockwell Kent will be the subject of a mini-symposium, “Creative Catalyst: Exploring Rockwell Kent’s Alaskan Adventure,” April 6-7 on the SUNY Plattsburgh campus.

“Creative Catalyst” looks at Kent beyond his Russian and Asgaard works, beyond the bookplates and “Moby Dick” illustrations. Hosted by the Plattsburgh State Art Museum, which houses one of the largest collections of Kent’s works, the symposium brings together Alaskan author and Kent historian Doug Capra; Claudia McGehee, award-winning author and illustrator who penned the children’s book, “My Wilderness: An Alaskan Adventure;” and Eric Downs, an independent filmmaker from Southcentral Alaska with ties to the Plattsburgh area whose film, “A Dreamer’s Search,” on Kent’s 1918 move to Alaska will premier Thursday night.

Left NYC for Alaska

rocky in front of cabinDowns, whose grandparents lived across the street from the Kent Gallery for many years, took a deep dive into Kent’s decision to move from New York City in search of inspiration in the territory that was not yet a state. With 8-year-old son, Rocky, in tow, he left as the Spanish Flu ravaged the city, settling on a remote Alaskan island where, isolated and unencumbered, he was free to do his work. This isolation also gave the artist and his namesake the chance to bond, as Downs explores in the 26-minute film.

The art he created on Fox Island later garnered widespread attention and national success for Kent, who until that point was failing as an artist.

His journal from the experience became the bestselling autobiography, “Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska.”

kent wilderness book coverIt was during his research for “A Dreamer’s Search” that Downs reached out to Plattsburgh State Art Museum Director Tonya Cribb and from that, the symposium idea was born.

“Eric’s (original) vision of Kent and his time in Alaska evolved to be Kent as a person and as a father,” Cribb said. “Through ‘Creative Catalyst,’ Eric wanted students to have a connection with Rockwell Kent; he wants them to be inspired.”

Premier the Film

Downs asked Cribb about premiering the film at the college.

“I thought that would be great,” she said. “Last year, we did a symposium on Kent in Greenland; this year we could do one on Kent in Alaska.”

Cribb, who makes it her mission to connect the museum across the curriculum, reached out to faculty to make that happen.

“Communication studies students would benefit from this, education students in early literacy would benefit from Claudia’s “My Wilderness” book. It’s also a good connection for our students and the community,” she said.

McGehee, a scratchboard artist, will present a scratchboard workshop during the symposium and talk about how she made the books, which are in the Kent Gallery giftshop, Cribb said.

For his part, Capra will present “The Turbulent Genesis of Rockwell Kent’s Wilderness” via Zoom, delving into Kent’s life during his time in Alaska — his rocky marriage, his politics of the Great War, the influenza epidemic, isolation, anxiety and depression.

Other Offerings

kent cabin paintingOther offerings throughout the two-day event include a docent-led tour of the Kent Gallery, a reception following the film screening Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in the Kent Gallery lobby and a workshop facilitated by Downs on storytelling.

It ties well into what Downs said in his director’s notes on the film:

“With ‘A Dreamer’s Search,’ I want to remind the audience that the thing you are looking for cannot always be found where you are; sometimes, it takes a journey.

“Our modern society is full of man-made distractions. We are consumed with artificial experiences. This film shines a light on the path back to the wilderness, to a place full of peace, solitude, and real adventure.”

For more information or a full schedule of “Creative Catalyst: Exploring Rockwell Kent’s Alaskan Adventure,” visit https://alumni.plattsburgh.edu/s/1603/bp19/interior.aspx?sid=1603&gid=1&pgid=2827&cid=6519&ecid=6519&crid=0&calpgid=2020&calcid=4114.

— By Associate Director of Communications Gerianne Downs

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