Shortly before leaving her hometown of Soldotna for an extended college study trip to New Zealand, Kaitlin Vadla injured her knee.
“I couldn’t do anything outside that I really loved, and I started to feel sad,” Vadla said. “So I took a painting class, and it was just what I needed.”
The Kenai Peninsula College class taught Vadla to paint with acrylics, which has now become one of her major pursuits. A collection of Vadla’s paintings, featuring expressively colorful impressionistic depictions of Alaska animals and ecosystems, is now on display at the Flats Bistro on Kalifornsky Beach Road, where they will remain until late February.
Flats owner Luke Thibodeau said that Vadla is the third artist his walls have hosted since he opened the restaurant in June 2014.
“The artist we pick has to be mutually beneficial,” Thibodeau said. “Kaitlin’s art is perfect. It’s a bunch of different sizes, it’s vibrant, it’s very colorful, and it has an Alaskan theme, which is something else we look for.”
Vadla, who works as a community organizer for the non-profit ecological research and advocacy group Cook Inletkeeper, said that her painting ties into her larger concerns in a way that surprised her.
“I guess the pieces of a person’s life always connect,” Vadla said. “When I came back from New Zealand (in 2013) I didn’t really intend to stay in Alaska. Then I got the job at Cook Inletkeeper … it’s funny. I never thought I’d live and work in the community where I grew up. But each day I’m here, I love it more and more. To be frank, it’s unexpected.”
In an artist’s statement accompanying the exhibit at the Flats, Vadla said that she came back to Alaska with “a changed perspective after living overseas.”
“When I left Alaska before going to college, I thought: there’s just so much world out there that I just couldn’t be happy and full in a small town like Soldotna, Alaska. I’m sort of ashamed that I thought that, because I’m very challenged and fulfilled here.”
What changed her mind, Vadla said, was “coming back and working here. Trying to tie together all of these pieces — what’s happening in the Legislature versus what’s happening in someone’s backyard, versus what I believe is in the best interest of Alaska’s future, what I hope to see here. There are all these things I care about here that I didn’t realize I cared about so much.”
One of Vadla’s largest paintings is a map of the Cook Inlet in which the watershed area is depicted as an aura of red and yellow. She said that this painting was connected to her environmental work.
“I love maps, and I love the shape of boundaries that are not political,” Vadla said. “Cook Inlet watershed is the purview of the Cook Inletkeeper organization. So part of it is this new area that was suddenly what I was meant to be looking out for. I think it looks like a body part almost. People are intimately connected to the land in Alaska.”
Vadla said that she hopes her paintings will communicate “how vibrant life is.”
“There are moments when we drive across the (Kenai River) flats and see the light changing,” Vadla said, describing the subject matter she seeks. “You’ve driven across the flats a million times, but for whatever reason the clouds are really dark grey and there’s this strip of yellow light underneath, and they just go so well together, and you see this place that you’ve driven by a hundred times in a whole new way.”