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Iris Sutton
Exploring Beringia 

Many children dream of dinosaurs or the wild west, of times long past. One thing that I often thought of growing up is a time when mammoths and wild horses lived in Alaska.  I loved animals and wondered about the furry beasts that once lived here.  I have always loved the idea of unique and iconic animals roaming across the landscape.

Applying to Homer Council on the Arts and having Exploring Beringia be my theme was a last-minute whim. I had been wanting to take my art beyond Fairbanks for a while.  I was overjoyed to be accepted and soon found that changed to being overwhelmed at the enormity of learning about Beringia. It was drastically different to do a show of work that included animals no one living can see now. Some are the same or similar to animals around today but some are very different.  I knew some about the Ice Age or what is more accurately termed the Last Glacial Maximum but found I needed to learn a lot more to possibly have a chance at depicting this time in an accurate way. I began reading every book I could find related to or about this time period. This was a large undertaking, being a reader of historical fiction and often young adult fiction because I can get through them quickly with the distractions of being a mom. It was the most science based involved reading I had done in years. It was interesting and I found ideas and theory varied drastically.  The timing of the arrival of moose and people to Beringia for example, is largely debated and theories change often.  The behavior of some animals and numbers of animals at different time periods is all information that is debated.

New information has been inspiring like the August 2021 article in the journal ‘Science’ by Matthew J. Woller et. al. The article discussed new isotopic evidence showing that mammoths migrated long distances across the Brooks Range many times in their lifetime. This finding directly inspired my painting “Sharing an Ancient Land”.

For me exploring Beringia became a quest for a way to show this place as accurately as science and my time will allow, and within my painting style.   I have not read every science journal on the subject nor presume to say that I know what Alaska looked like 20,000 years ago during the Last Glacial Maximum, but I have made a best guess based on reading, my knowledge of the tundra and wildlife and thanks to archeologists that have shared their knowledge with me.

‘Exploring Beringia’ is also a continuation of the style of painting that I have focused on for the last 10 years where I test the bounds of color. I am always looking for opportunities to create artwork that is full of color while still being true to life.  Mammals I have found are infinitely forgiving in their flexibility on color; birds on the other hand are not.  Birds absent from this show, not because they weren’t here during the Last Glacial Maximum or because I don’t find them completely worthy painting subjects, but because I found very little specific information about them during that time period. I also find them infinitely more difficult to paint because birds are identified as much by color as by shape. This reliance on color for identification creates problems when my painting often involves changing color. It turns out a robin without a red breast is actually no longer recognizable as a robin, but could be a varied thrush or a bluebird.  I also have questions about amphibians. Did amphibians like wood frogs live in Alaska at this time?

I still have many questions and over the next six months before ‘Exploring Beringia’ shows in Fairbanks I hope to have a few more answers.

On display at SPH:

Iris Sutton Biography

I am a mom, painter, and farmer living in Fairbanks, Alaska. I love learning about science, the environment and especially wildlife. My paintings explore the natural landscapes and animals of Alaska with vibrant color and are large-scale sometimes up to four or five feet long. My paintings are inspired by my trips on foot, by dog team or car around Alaska. I enjoy sharing my work with friends, family and the larger community.

Growing up in rural areas of Alaska has been a huge inspiration as well as given me a strong understanding of the wildlife, landscape and ecology. My family lived on a remote homesite in interior Alaska and traveled to a commercial/subsistence fish camp for summers. Later we also lived in Manley Hot Springs and Nome. Over my lifetime I have seen many changes, from salmon numbers drastically declining, to melting permafrost and increases in temperature and wildfire.  My goals with my art are to inspire a love and respect for the natural world, to inspire children to explore, learn and experiment with art and nature themselves.  I am a strong believer in the idea that people will protect what they know and value. Painting is a way for me to share my love for the natural world with others; those that can visit natural spaces as well as those that cannot.

In another part of my life, I am a farmer providing fresh, local, organic vegetables through community shared agriculture in the summer. My family and I raise goats for milk and manure, and chickens for eggs for ourselves. We try to minimize commercialism and buy things locally and make them last. My two children have grown up on the small farm and understand much of the workings of an organic farm and know much about plants and animals. They also have extensive knowledge of the natural environment and the value of protecting it.