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Artists find Sitka fine setting for work

August 19, 2017 GMT

SITKA, Alaska (AP) — What if you had an idea for a graphic novel, an opera or maybe a scientific theory, and all you needed to bring it to fruition was time, space and opportunity, in a beautiful setting?

That’s kind of the idea behind the Sitka Fellows program, now in its sixth year.

“That spirit has remained intact,” said Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins. He and Sitka Fine Arts Camp director Roger Schmidt devised the concept of the residency program as a way to support young artists, writers and academics at critical points of their careers.

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The residency was also intended as another way to make use of the 20-acre historic Sheldon Jackson campus, which was given to Alaska Arts Southeast for the Sitka Fine Arts Camp in 2011.

The Fellows are drawn from all over the world for their six weeks on campus, where they work and find ways to interact and collaborate with each other.

Regular workshops are offered to the community during the residency, which runs July 16 to Aug. 28 this year.

Recently, artist Madeline Welsch gave a workshop “Twigs to Tools: Patterns from Alternative Drawing Materials,” that offered participants the chance to use such found objects as feathers, shells or twigs as drawing implements. The workshop drew about 30 participants.

The other fellows, radio producer Sylvia Ryerson, investigative journalist Muira McCammon, and short story writer Julia Drake offered workshops in their fields during the first three weeks of the program.

Kreiss-Tomkins said it’s satisfying to support young artists, academics and writers by giving them time, space and opportunity to dedicate themselves to a particular project, at a time when they may be at a crucial point in their careers.

One of the former Fellows has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; another has brought home notable awards for his comics and graphic novels; one has moved to Sitka; one started an annual music festival; and another started his own physicists residency, in partnership with the Sitka Sound Science Center.

“We’re starting to see these people making an impact on the world,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.

The program is facilitated each year by a former Fellow, who comes back for another summer on campus.

“This is a special program,” said Sarah Gibson, this year’s facilitator, and a 2015 Sitka Fellow. “At its best it encourages people who come here to engage and be really curious about Sitka, and figure out how to have a deeper relationship with the community. I was really excited to come back and facilitate people through the process.”

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This year’s group has been a cohesive bunch, and Gibson has enjoyed seeing the way participants from different disciplines support and interact with each other, often in unexpected ways. For instance, Gibson said, this year’s investigative journalist provided advice on archival research for the comics artist on her World War II work.

“It’s that thing you hope for but can’t plan or dictate,” Gibson said. “What kinds of collaboration, what the chemistry will be - you never know.”

Two Fellows who spoke to the Sentinel said their time here has been invaluable at this point in their career.

Welsch, a graduate of Skidmore College, is spending her six weeks completing the storyboard for her animated film. She feels Sitka is the perfect setting, given her area of interest and short film subject.

“A lot of my work is inspired by nature,” she said. The short film was inspired by her relationship with eating meat; having the chance to harvest a salmon “opened my eyes to what kind of energy I want to be exploring in my piece.”

Playwright Lauren Wimmer, who is from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is halfway through her master of fine arts degree from Carnegie Mellon University. Her project is a full-length play, about a nomadic woman and a man who tries to replace his daughter, who’s away at college, with a life-size doll.

She said she had looked forward to a program that allowed her to connect back to nature after spending time mostly in metropolitan environments. The play is one of several projects she’s working on.

“If I get frustrated, I move on to something else,” she said. Being in Sitka has brought up new ideas for projects, she said, “especially being in a small town where everyone knows each other.”

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Information from: Daily Sitka (Alaska) Sentinel, http://www.sitkasentinel.com/