Since moving to Homer in April 2018, artist David Pettibone has put down roots in the lower Kenai Peninsula art scene, much of it in collaboration with other artists.
This month, Pettibone has a show with Anchorage ceramics artist Stephen Godfrey at Bunnell Street Arts Center. Pettibone’s large figurative and landscape paintings are part of a narrative series he calls “Eat, drink and be merry …” That’s a reference to a quote by environmentalist philosopher David Brower in John McPhee’s book, “Encounters with the Archdruid.” Brower said, “I believe in wilderness for itself alone. I believe in the rights of creatures other than man. And I suppose I accept Nancy Newhall’s definition: ‘Conservation is humanity caring for the future.’ It is the antithesis of ‘Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.’”
With his wife, Elissa, Pettibone built The Shop: A Kachemak Bay Art Space, a one-year experiment in creating an endeavor that was an art gallery, studio and classroom.
The Shop closed in October 2019, and David Pettibone shifted his energy into offering small-class instruction at Homer Art and Frame before the pandemic, and now online through private Zoom classes.
“It was fun. I think we learned a lot,” Pettibone said of The Shop. “In the end it wasn’t financially feasible.”
With friend Austin Parkhill and Elissa helping on the conceptual design, Pettibone just finished installing a sandhill crane mural at the new Homer Police Station at the corner of Grubstake Avenue and Heath Street.
The idea of collaborating with Parkhill came about through a friendship that started when the artists met in 2013 in Utqiagvik, where Parkhill worked at Ilsagvik College and Pettibone did an artist residency learning from Inupiaq whaling crews.
“We had always tossed around the idea of collaborating on a mural sometime,” Pettibone said. “The opportunity was perfect.”
Under the City of Homer’s program in which 1% of a city-funded construction budget goes to art, Parkhill and Pettibone submitted a design. Elissa Pettibone helped them render their proposal. David Pettibone had painted a mural of a school of fish that wrapped around the corner of a bar in Turkey, and their first idea for the police station was of a school of salmon. They also suggested an alternate idea of a flock of cranes, the concept the building artistic committee chose.
The mural flows along 15 rectangular panels on the sides of an exterior garage next to the main police station building. The wall panels are siding made of foam sandwiched between two thin sheets of aluminum. Parkhill and Pettibone ordered their own panels pre-coated with a factory primer, cut them to fit, and then painted the art on the panels using a line of paint made for murals. The mural panels fit the dimensions of the siding so they appear integral to the plan.
“We were able to rework our design to go with the building a little bit more,” Pettibone said. “… I was happy with how it seemed to be part of that architecture, rather than a picture painted separately from it.”
With panels on the north- and west-facing walls, the images of the cranes catch the light as it changes over the seasons and the day. The idea is that the north wall would get the summer morning light and the west wall would get the alpenglow from the setting sun. That was Parkhill’s idea, Pettibone said,
“He wanted to have the sky as it (the sun) progresses, it changes in chronological time from mid-day to evening light,” Pettibone said. “The hope was that by the time you got to evening light, that’s facing west — you would have a nice, warm glow.”
Pettibone submitted his proposal for a show at Bunnell two years ago, and Bunnell artistic director Asia Freeman scheduled him for a show with Godfrey. That’s a happy coincidence: In 2015, Godfrey, then chair of the University of Alaska Anchorage art department, hired Pettibone to work as an adjunct art instructor.
Mostly a figurative and landscape painter, Pettibone’s style tends to be representational.
“I like to keep things loose just so that there’s constant reminders that you’re looking at a picture plane,” he said.
His Bunnell paintings all look at the human relationship with Kachemak Bay. They’re part of that “Eat, drink and be merry …” narrative series.
At 96-inches by 72-inches, the most dramatic painting, “Symptoms of Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning,” dominates the east wall of the Bunnell gallery. Featuring nine figures, it illustrates what happens when someone gets poisoned by tainted shellfish, from tachycardia, or rapid heartbeat, to, well, death. Each figure represents one of those symptom, including a figure floating out of the frame.
“I personally am attracted to … I don’t want to say traditional — the more representational work,” he said. “I think I get stuck in the magical realism genre in my paintings, at least the narratives.”
Pettibone said he’s influenced by the art of the 17th century Spanish baroque period that often has as its subject sets of figures in a scene, often from classical mythology or the Bible, with some beings floating at the painting’s edges.
“They tend to be pretty dark, Velazquez in particular,” he said. “… You no longer have figures grounded. They become compositional elements. You have putti (baby angels) flying around the air, wherever you need one.”
On the opposite wall from”Symptoms” is “Open for Business,” a painting that evokes the French rococo painter Watteau’s “Pierrot.” Watteau shows a French actor on the stage in a downcast pose. “Open for Business” has a fisherman in that same pose. Behind him are scenes depicting the three major industries of Kachemak Bay: tourism, fishing and resource extraction or oil and gas. The title comes from a speech by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. In his description, Pettibone said the painting is meant as a response to the state and federal administrations’ willingness “to promote resource extraction to the detriment of Alaska’s land, environment, and its people.”
The large paintings are intended and priced more as museum art, each taking six months or more to paint, Pettibone said.
“Those big ones aren’t gong to go in somebody’s kitchen or bathroom,” he said. “The hope is one museum will find it worth making it part of their collection.”
Pettibone said he’d like his paintings to have an impact on the viewer.
“A good painting will get your attention from far away, kind of like a bold statement, and then it will draw you in and keep you close with the details,” he said. “… You get up close and get lost, every square inch of it.”