Portal is essentially a love story. It’s a story about my nearly half-century love of the boreal forest, of the trees that grow in the North, of the 2000-acre arboretum that is part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, and of a more than half-century old, 2-acre plot within that forest filled with trees from throughout the circumpolar North.
Forty-one years ago, I visited that tiny plot, known locally as the “Exotic Tree Plantation” (ETP), when those trees were saplings. They had been planted a few years before by University of Alaska and U.S. Forest Service scientists from seeds gathered from Southeast Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, and Russia. Les Viereck, John Alden, John Zasada and others germinated seeds, planted seedlings, tended them, and measured their growth on this site for over two decades. Sporadic measurements were made for a few years more, but the site has been seldom visited in recent years, by researchers, scientists, or anyone else.
I have run, skied, and snowshoed past this fenced compound for years, wanting to get back in to see those long-fully-grown trees, see how they are doing, and get to know them. Jan Dawe of the OneTree Alaska program, where I serve as artist-in-residence, was able to get me access, and she has been a great source of inspiration and knowledge about what I see there—answering my questions, visiting the site with me, collecting and germinating seeds, and more. Encouraged by discussions with her and other ITOC participants, I have reached out to others and brought them there to see it through their eyes. Visits in the ETP with science writer Ned Rozell, scientists Carl Roland, Glenn Juday, Ben Gaglioti, Kelsey Aho, Jamie Hollingsworth, and knowledgeable others have unfailingly opened my eyes to new things each time.
Portal depicts a kind of doorway to the heart of this little experimental forest, and some of the burgeoning life within it. It is about looking closely at the likenesses and differences among the trees of the circumpolar north that grow there. It is one of some half-dozen paintings I have made this year about this special place, and there will be many more. I am well on my way to getting to know every single tree in that magical garden.
Kesler Woodward has painted the boreal forest for 45 years, from Alaska to Hudson Bay in the Canadian Arctic and the Siberian coast. His solo exhibits include the University of Alaska Museum, Alaska State Museum, Anchorage Museum, Morris Museum of Art, Nevada Museum of Art, and public and galleries throughout the U.S. His paintings are included in all major public art collections in Alaska, and in museum, corporate and private collections on both coasts of the U.S.
In 2004 Woodward received the first Alaska Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts. In 2012 he was awarded the Rasmuson Foundation’s Distinguished Artist Fellowship.