Artist Steve Lawrie at Phonograph Creek in 2021. The Bealers didn’t specify how their home should be used by the Sitka Conservation Society, only that it benefit the Society’s Living Wilderness Fund. (SCS/Clare)

A new exhibit is opening in Sitka, in honor of artists Eric and Pam Bealer. 

The year-long project is a collaboration between a visual artist and a writer, both of whom found inspiration in the extraordinary lives of the Bealers, and in the extraordinary nature of their passing.

Note: The Squirrel and the Bear opening reception will be 5-7 pm Friday, April 7, in the first floor of the Venneburg Insurance building on Harbor Drive. All are welcome. The exhibit will be up until April 21. For purposes of disclosure, Maite Lorente serves on the board of directors of KCAW.

Eric Bealer was a wood engraver. Even if you don’t recognize his name, you’ll instantly recognize his art: Intricately detailed prints of the Southeast Alaskan landscape surrounding the home he made with his wife Pam, a textile artist, in Phonograph Creek, just outside of Pelican, on Chichagof Island.

In most ways, the Bealers were like so many other Alaskans living off the grid,  forging a life from the land. But in one way they were quite different: Although it’s been five years since the couple died, their home – and their spirit – are very much alive.

“The interesting thing about that couple is when you go there, her presence is strong, really strong,” said Steve Lawrie, a portrait artist and painter who’s been out to Phonograph Creek several times.

“And Eric not so much, until you get out into the boat shop because he built boats, in addition to other things. He built all the buildings on the property. They built boats. It’s not that they’re any different in some ways than a lot of Alaskans. You know, you can look around and see people living out in the sticks and right there around Pelican. It’s the amount of art that Eric produced with Pam’s help. That’s pretty amazing.”

A world class wood engraver, Eric Bealer’s work is instantly recognizable for the depth of its detail. This piece is entitled “Surge Bay Puffins.” (SCS image)

Then and now, Eric Bealer’s engravings remain some of the most iconic work produced in Alaska, and they can be found in homes and galleries everywhere. The exhibit installed in Sitka isn’t a wall filled with Bealer’s prints, however, it is a collection of over 50 paintings by Lawrie and his literary collaborator, Maite Lorente, which illuminate the lives of these remarkable people.

The exhibit is called The Squirrel and the Bear.

“Eric identified – if you like – as a squirrel, and boy, it is appropriate,” said Lawrie. “I don’t know if you’ve ever met him but he’s very frenetic. Like a squirrel. His wife Pam, more grounded, more solid to the earth. She identified with bear,  so that’s how the title came about.”

“They tried to live as close to the earth as possible,’ said Andrew Thoms, the director of the Sitka Conservation Society.

“They tried to have as small of an environmental footprint as they could. They built their house out of beach logs that they salvaged. They practiced a subsistence lifestyle and put up all their food, they had gardens and grew stuff,  and they made a lot of their art from what they found and gathered and were inspired by in the surrounding environment. And it was a really Alaskan way of life off the grid.”\

Pam and Eric Bealer at Sea Pony Farm. As Pam’s MS advanced, she gave up her horses and sheep. The couple disappeared from their remote cabin on Green Top, Yakobi Island, in the fall of 2018. They had completely arranged their affairs, and left instructions not to look for their bodies. (SCS image)

In  widely publicized news at the time, the Bealers disappeared from their home at Phonograph Creek in the fall of 2018 (and also from their remote property at Green Top, on Yakobi Island), leaving behind packages and postage, notes for friends and family, and a message for everyone else that they had chosen to end their lives together, and to waste no time or money trying to find their bodies.

They were both in their late 50s, Pam suffering from increasingly debilitating multiple sclerosis , and Eric – as far as is known – in good health.

They left their Phonograph Creek property and its contents to the Sitka Conservation Society, to benefit the Society’s Living Wilderness Fund, and it’s now a retreat built by artists, for artists.

“Eric and Pam lived and built their property and designed – everything that they had up there was a work of art,” said Thoms, “you know, just like the artwork that they did. They were true artists to their core, and it was infused in everything that they did. They had a very strong connection with the lands and waters around them. And you can feel that they’re in the property. And the Living Wilderness Fund honors them, and the founders of the Conservation Society, and the people that really did great work to help preserve this place for future generations.

“Ken” by Stephen Lawrie. Lawrie’s portraits often feature only his subject’s face, in remarkable detail. In “The Squirrel and the Bear,” Lawrie says he focused on illustration, and found a strong new direction for his work. (Image c. Stephen Lawrie)

Although some will say the Bealers’ lives ended tragically, Steve Lawrie doesn’t. The context of The Squirrel and the Bear is much greater than the detail of their deaths.

“It’s a love story,” he said. “ Look at me, I’m an older guy: We all know how life works. But this couple met when they were young. And within two days, they started a life together and they never deviated. They went from back East to Haines, Alaska. They lived there for four or five years and then moved to Phonograph Creek when that property became available. And they never deviated from what Andrew just described, which is a life far less impactful life than I live for example. And I really admire their tenacity and in doing it.” 

Lawrie has become well-known in recent years for his oversized portraits – paintings large enough for the National Portrait Gallery, but displaying, in most cases, only his subjects’ faces in painstaking detail. While this might recommend him as an interpreter of Eric Bealer’s work, Lawrie goes in a different direction for The Squirrel and the Bear, and the departure has resulted in some surprising – and profound – new work.

“They’re all paintings that describe the Bealers,” Lawrie said. “There are several portraits. The home, the interior of the home, the exterior of the home. Basically, I became an illustrator in this series of paintings, I suppose it would be fair to say. I think they explain their lives – this whole thing will help explain their lives.”

Lawrie credits his collaborator, Maite Lorente, for pouring over the journals and photos the Bealers left behind, including their notes to one another, and giving the exhibit a structure. Some of Lorente’s poems and excerpts from other writings are incorporated into the paintings themselves – over 50 in all.The Squirrel and the Bear seems made-to-order for a book someday, but the Sitka Conservation Society doesn’t have a timeline. For now, it’s both a tribute to the Bealers and to their home in the Tongass, as well as fresh insight into the lives they led, and the choices they made.