By Jenny Neyman
Five young, hippie artists and two cats spending six weeks driving cross-country in a 1977 Dodge Aspen pulling a Nimrod pop-up trailer, heading from New York to Alaska in 1988.
That backdrop alone paints quite the lively picture, one that artist Zirrus VanDevere mined for inspiration years later in one of her favorite mixed-media pieces. It and much more artwork, by VanDevere and others, will be up for auction Saturday in an art celebration at Triumvirate Theatre.
The auction is a sort of goodbye — for now, at least — to Alaska, as VanDevere has been in New York the last two years to be with her ailing father. So it’s fitting to include a piece that represents her journey to the state.
She and her friends were barely out of college, with barely any money between them and not much more in the way of a plan to get to their loosely chosen destination — Kasilof, where the sister of VanDevere’s boyfriend, later husband, was living.
“It was a bizarre experience,” she said. “We had so many circumstances that could have gone wrong, and it didn’t. We had some good mojo going.”
The tape deck in the car catching fire, prompting everyone to bail out through the car’s windows, as they’d become accustomed to doing on the two doors that stuck, even though two other doors worked just fine.
A border guard wanting to inspect everything in the car and trailer — which would have required a mammoth feat of unpacking, and perhaps some creative explaining. But the guard got so invested in helping search for the cat that bolted in the process that, once reunited, they were sent on their way, unsearched.
The theme of the trip was precipitation. There was a drought across the Lower 48 that year, yet every time they stopped to camp, it rained within a day or two.
“We visited with the neighbors (at a campsite in the Dakotas),” she said. “They said, ‘It’s so hot, it’s so dry!’ We’re like, ‘Don’t worry, it’s coming!’ We left in a hailstorm, I kid you not, and then it poured for days. We were like, ‘OK, time to move on, it’s raining.’”
Getting to the Kenai Peninsula, though, was more precipitous than precipitation.
“In my mind I was thinking I’d keep going. ‘Siberia, Russia, Europe — OK, I can see that, that could be interesting.’ But within a month I was looking for land. I was instantly smitten. I didn’t move five miles from where we dropped down, not five,” she said.
Zirrus had landed. At the time, though, she was still going by her given name, Marty Hapeman. VanDevere came from a later marriage. And Marty, from Martha, never felt like it fit, not like her new name, which popped into her head one night as she was restlessly dreaming. Zirrus is a European pronunciation of cirrus, the wispy clouds that signal change.
Around 2000, she started using it to sign her artwork, and about 10 years later legally changed her name. As she set roots in Alaska, she nurtured an emerging arts scene in the community, living up to her moniker as a bringer of growth-inducing rain, a portender of change.
“I always, my entire life, have designed it to do artwork,” she said. “And I think I’ve just always had an urge to get other people to do work and exhibit their work. It was not long before I realized what I really am is an art advocate.”
She applied for a job as a framing fitter at Frontier Frame Gallery with no previous experience, but with an art and graphic design background and some intangible qualities that just so happened to click with the main framer.
“I got the job and found out years later that there were a few people who applied and had experience, but he hired me because of ‘personality and potential,’” she said. “Under special interests on my application I put ‘Dadaism.’ Turns out he was into Dada, too.”
She eventually took over as head framer and bought the business in 2001, renaming it Artworks. It had been mainly a wildlife, Alaskana gallery, and she added space for local artists. To help kick-start interest, she initiated a First Thursday event, where galleries, coffee shops and the like display art and have an opening reception the first Thursday evening of the month, so people can tour from one to another to see what’s up around town. The receptions at her gallery always involved a spread of good food and drink, good music and a good time.
“It was a way to get people to come in and see what everybody’s doing. It doesn’t have to be much — could just be coffee and cookies. I just happened to like to put on a good party,” she said.
She’s also written an art review column, worked as events and exhibits curator at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, and in general has done whatever she could to put the central peninsula on the map as an arts community.
“I really feel like I educated the public about art and created interest in art and artists, and also let it be known how much art there is in the area — just awareness of the potential, and I still think the potential’s here,” she said.
Choosing to move back to New York after just about 25 years in Alaska was a difficult decision.
“I never want to lose my connection here. It’s tough. I just feel like this is one of the greatest places to live on earth. And I love winter!” she said.
Although, true to form, she brought precipitation with her.
“I stole winter, I confess. My two winters I’ve been in New York we had snow and it stayed on the ground all winter,” she said.
The move also presents some logistical difficulties. After two and a half decades creating, framing, collecting and selling art here, she’s amassed a lot of it, and since she closed her gallery, it’s all been stored in her cabin and frame shop in Kasilof. But the frame shop is due to become her ex-husband’s boat shop, and her tiny cabin is at capacity just with her furniture, herself and her dreadlocks.
So, it all must go, particularly since a debilitating back injury has left VanDevere without the physical means to move things, nor the financial means to arrange for long-term storage. What better way than by dispersing it back to the community that inspired so much of the work?
“I thought it was going to be really hard to let stuff go, but with my ego-busting back experience and realizing I’m not what I do (she’s be unable to work while recovering), I’m also realizing I’m not what I have. It has actually been easier than what I thought it would be to purge stuff, and it actually brings me some joy,” she said.
But how to go about it? Throw a party, of course. VanDevere is partnering with Triumvirate Theatre to host an “Evening of Artistic Revelry and Art Auction Celebration,” with part of the proceeds going to a youth literacy program. VanDevere’s artwork will be up for outcry and silent auction, as well as work by many other artists. There will also be art and framing supplies and equipment, some unusual objects she’s collected over the years, and, admittedly, some less exotic items.
“Clothes, household stuff, a fridge. Yeah, not so artistic, but I do have to clear the place out,” she said.
Sen. Peter Micciche will act as auctioneer, with live music by Mike Morgan and Matt Boyle. VanDevere wants to have a slideshow of work by any artist who wishes to participate on display throughout the night. And artists and creators of any stripe will get a backstage pass to a separate area of frames, art supplies and the makings of more artwork, all sold by donation.
VanDevere paints, draws, photographs and sculpts, though her pieces often end up mixed media, no matter in what mode they started. Her work is usually abstract in some way, unabashedly personal and often makes some sort of comment or offers some sort of perspective.
“Anybody who’s playing the jester’s role and pointing out things that are wrong in the kingdom, that’s an artist,” she said. “I think it’s almost like a duty. An artist can get away with it. Not that every piece has to be political, but I think artists are responsible for portraying the word to people, and part of that is showing what’s wrong with the world to just increase the consciousness.”
Among the pieces will be one referencing her wild ride to Alaska. It’s a wooden framework that started with hieroglyphics depicting scenes from her trip west, but has since gone through years of transformation.
“Throughout time I’ve created artwork on it and never felt like it was finished, so I kept changing it,” she said. “It went through so many incarnations in my studio — I attached things to it, painted it, scraped paint off of it, put cloth on it and fiberglass and did all kinds of stuff to it.”
Eventually, she attached an old bumper with a 1963 license plate she scavenged from an abandoned junkyard in Kasilof.
“When I put nails on it to hang that bumper on the bottom it finally felt complete. It was always a symbol of my journey,” she said.
“(The event) ties in with the theme of honoring artists,” she said. “I see performers as artists, and dancers as artists, and painters as artists, and writers as artists, and musicians as artists. To me, anybody who’s putting out a little piece of their soul on exhibit is an artist.”
In that regard, she gets to leave pieces of her soul in Alaska, through the art pieces she’s leaving behind.
“Part of me will always feel like I belong here,” she said.
The Artistic Revelry and Art Auction Celebration will be from 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday at Triumvirate Theatre, five miles north of Kenai on the Kenai Spur Highway. Admission is free and open to the public. Artists wishing to display images of their work in the slideshow may email images to firstname.lastname@example.org no later than 8 a.m. Friday.