On a clear day, Louise Nutter can see 10 of Cook Inlet’s oil and gas platforms from the deck of her house in Nikiski. Hilcorp’s four platforms in the Middle Shoal unit stand out near the blue-gray horizon, and the Furie-leased Kitchen Lights gas field sprawls to her north. These fixtures of Nutter’s view are also stars of her paintings.
One large canvas features Hilcorp’s A platform. The finely rendered red Era helicopter that occupies the painting’s foreground was used by the platform’s previous owner, XTO Energy, before the sale to Hilcorp. This out-of-date detail has kept the painting off the market — most of her art buyers, Nutter said, are oil and gas workers or executives for whom such details are relevant. They are relevant, too, for Nutter — a stickler for accuracy who paints what she knows.
“I want everything to be ‘This is how it is in real life, so this is how I’m going to paint,’” Nutter said. “If I was going to paint a helicopter and a platform, it has to be the paint scheme of the company helicopter that actually goes there. I’m pretty strict about it being true to life.”
Raised in upstate New York, Nutter came from a flying family — her father flew Hellcat torpedo bombers during World War II, hunting German submarines in night flights over the Atlantic. Nutter said her first artwork was of airplanes. Her aspirations have also focused on aviation since she was a teenager, when her father asked what she’d do with her life.
“I told him that I guess I was going to be a flight attendant, since women can’t fly,” Nutter said. “I have six brothers, and nobody ever gave me a model airplane kit, because they tried to make me into a girly-girl. Luckily, my dad realized none of my brothers were ever interested in flying. So my dad took me straight to the airport and was like, ‘You can fly. You don’t have to be a flight attendant.’ He helped pay for my private license. I soloed when I was 16. Got licensed right away, and by the time I was 25 I was hauling car parts in DC-3s out of the Detroit area, and I would have done that job forever.”
Instead she was laid off by her employer, General Motors, and moved west to take up aerial fire-fighting. Later she became a 747 cargo pilot making flights to the Middle East as a civilian contractor during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Her career eventually brought her to Alaska, where she planned to fly helicopters to and from Cook Inlet platforms. Though she has yet to make a platform flight, this ambition has informed her art.
“When I switched to helicopters, I also switched to painting helicopters,” Nutter said. “One day I was painting one of the platforms out the window, and I was painting a friend of mine’s helicopter … and that gave me the idea ‘Hey, there’s oil platforms in my paintings now. I should be marketing this to the oil and gas industry.’”
Nutter’s idea turned out to be untimely. Soon after she created her studio brand — Burning the Midnight Oil — the industry took the plunge from which it has yet to recover. She remains optimistic.
“When I was a kid, my mother told me that all artists are starving, and you couldn’t make any money at it,” Nutter said. “It’s a shame she put that type of perspective in my head, because it’s absolutely not true. As long as you follow your heart in anything you do, you’re going to make it. There’s people doing it all the time.”
Nutter’s art has continued following the wandering path of her experience, from the sky to the sea. Nutter now does most of her painting on a boat she recently bought and docked in Whittier.
“What everybody in Whittier does is shrimping,” Nutter said. “So you throw out your shrimp pots, they soak in the ocean, you pull them in, and usually if you’re lucky you get 2 gallons of shrimp tail out of it… Well, sometimes octopus are in the shrimp pots. By accident, I got about eight of them last year.”
Nutter had been an admirer of Halibut Cove-based artist Diana Tillion, who specialized in sepia-toned ink washes using octopus ink. Nutter liked the look of octopus ink on paper, but held back from using it herself.
“I didn’t want to steal (Tillion’s) idea of harvesting the ink and using it to paint,” Nutter said.
A chance encounter in Homer with Tillion’s daughter gave her the license she sought.
“I said (to Tillion’s daughter) ‘I want to paint with octopus ink, because I catch them in shrimp pots and cook them up. I’ve been saving the ink and thinking about it, but I don’t want to steal your mom’s idea,’” Nutter said. “Her mom had passed a few years ago (in 2010), and she was like ‘Are you kidding? a lot of people have copied her idea. Just go for it!’ She was just happy I had been respectful enough to ask her.”
This led to a series of prints using not only octopus ink, but the octopi themselves.
“Before I cook up tentacles and eat them, I would freeze them to get them a little bit firm, and then I’d roll them in the ink,” Nutter said. “That way I could paint the octopus themselves. I thought ‘well, it’s slightly cliche to have an octopus reaching up out of the water to grab a boat, but what the heck? I’m going to do it with oil platforms.’”
Other recent paintings feature the details of oil technology. Nutter’s series focusing on the aesthetic details of heavy industrial drill bits could be described as portraits of the tools oil drillers use at different depths to penetrate different materials.
“I enjoy science and technology as much as I enjoy art,” Nutter said. “So I’m attracted to anything like oil-drilling tools. There’s an art form in the technology. Those are beautiful. There’s nothing like shiny, new beautiful tools… They go down, like, almost 30,000 feet. I know how deep that is because I used to fly that high! That’s really incredible.”
Despite oil’s price slump, Nutter has found some commercial success with her industry-focused work. Three of her paintings hang in the dining room of Anchorage’s Petroleum Club, and she’s currently trying to market a children’s book she’s written about oil and gas engineering.
Her newest platform painting features Cook Inlet’s newest platform, Furie’s Julius R monopod, installed in August 2015 — the first new permanent platform in the Inlet since the 1980’s. Nutter’s depiction of it is flanked by designs resembling gas flames or oil gushes. The water and sky around the rigid structures of her platforms and aircraft is made of daubs of impressionist color. When asked about the contrast between the tight detail of her machines and the brighter, hazier abstraction of their surroundings, Nutter said the difference seemed to come from her personality.
“When I paint a helicopter or an airplane, I’m going to make it as detailed and exact as I can, because it’s such a magnificent piece of machinery that I love to operate,” Nutter said. “But I’ve always done landscapes in an impressionistic style… I don’t like reality. Or everybody else’s reality, I should say. My reality is more — the edges are fuzzy. My reality is that there are endless possibilities, and as a person you can do, be, or have anything you want. So I suppose that spills over into my paintings.”