Traveling Begonias

Bringing the world to you one artifact at a time

August 2018

Between a rock and a good place

AlaskaKate Begonia2 Comments

Jack Hepler has been carving soapstone sculptures since he was in middle school. I've known Jack since that time and remember seeing a vast array of sculptures he, his dad, and brother would produce during breaks from school. There were ducks and loons and a variety of other water fowl in all sizes and colors. I am fortunate to own a loon carved by Jack. Unfortunately the beak and the tail have been damaged over the past 30 years so it's far from its original condition. And while it's no longer perfect, it's still beautiful and is always featured prominently in my home.

Like many artists, Jack has all kinds of pieces in process at any given time. He and his wife Krista have two children and he’s been a middle school teacher for 27 years. So he fits in the carving when his kids don't need him, when he's done with his teaching duties, and when he isn't out hunting or fishing.

Now let's clear something up right away: Soapstone is not made of soap. Soapstone is a rock that has a high talc content which makes the surface feel powdery and smooth to the touch. But it isn't pliable, it must be carefully manipulated with heat and carving tools in order to successfully turn it into something else.

Jack currently uses Brazilian soapstone for his creations. To determine the color the stone will be once polished -- as well as identify any cracks or fissures that could damage the piece during carving -- he uses water to illuminate the character of the stone. He chooses the raw material based on color, interesting occlusions, and size.

To break up large stones he uses a bandsaw to create smaller stones that are easier to work with. Once he selects a stone of the right size and color for his intended design, he sketches a rough outline in Sharpie directly onto the stone.

To continue the more intricate carving he wears gloves and a respirator mask. His primary tools are files, rasps, and sandpaper.

Then he files and sands and files and sands and files and sands.

Remember, while he's working with the stone, it merely looks white and powdery so the final stages really do build suspense for the big reveal.

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When the piece is completed, he does a final sanding with 600 wet/dry sandpaper. He polishes with gun oil and then bakes the finished piece for 2-6 hours on a slab of wood at low heat.

Depending upon the size and intricacy of the piece, Jack spends 8-12+ hours on each of his sculptures. Sizes range from a 4" starfish up to an 18" pod of dolphins. The final one-of-a-kind product really honors the animal, with the grain of the stone bringing the creatures to life in an unexpected way.


As an avid outdoors-man and lifelong Alaskan, Jack's work is clearly inspired by the wilderness he's lived in and enjoyed his entire life. These days Jack carves a lot of grizzlies and polar bears and he loves carving humpback whales and dolphins. In addition to carving, Jack is also a very talented illustrator. I remember desks at West High School that had Jack Hepler original sketches gracing their tops. I don't think he still graffitis desktops, but he does still draw intricate portrayals of animals and the wilds of Alaska.

His sculpture work can be seen at a few galleries in Anchorage and Homer. But really the best way to experience his work is seeing him in action at the Saturday market in Anchorage or at one of the local arts and crafts fairs. He will be at the following Anchorage shows this fall:

  • 11/3/18: South High Bazaar

  • 11/17/18: City Church Craft Show

  • 12/1/18: UAA Craft Show

For anyone outside of Anchorage interested in his work you can contact Jack directly over email. And if you’re in the Portland area you can come visit my loon (#17) anytime.

Fish on!

AlaskaKate Begonia3 Comments

Romney Dodd’s work has taken a variety of forms over the years and much of her inspiration is through her own life experiences. Her creative story begins with dabbling in ceramics when her kids were young as a fun, creative outlet. That hobby quickly became a full-time labor of love as her dishware and decorative pieces became incredibly popular.

Romney ceramics

Romney ceramics

Later her medium of choice became hand-painted Dansko clogs. That work came about when she decided to paint her own worn-out clogs to spruce them up. So many people loved them she created an entire line that sold as fast as she could paint. In 2014 Alaskans on the Olympic Nordic Ski Team wore custom-painted Romneys to the games in Sochi! 

Romney’s studio is a hotbed of creativity. On any given day you’ll see painted doors, fabrics, clogs, ceramics, and fish. Lots of fish.

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Romney’s latest work is iconically Alaskan. And again, inspired by everyday life. When a local taxidermist decided to clean out their stock of unclaimed fish, inspiration struck and Romney’s newest medium was born.

Watching how she turns these former trophies into works of art was really fun, if also bewildering. I mean, really...who thinks to paint fish?! But once you see the fantastic completed product it feels like, duh! Of course you would paint fish! 

To get the fish ready for painting, she takes the fish skin mounted on styrofoam, then drills out the eye sockets in order to place glass eyes. 

After carefully gluing in the eyes, she cleans and preps the form to get ready to paint. 

She either paints the fish as is, or puts down a layer of Bondo® and once dried, sprays the fish a solid color. She then paints each fish with whimsical designs in vibrant colors, and sometimes adds a little bedazzling.

The result is a tribute to the fish, as well as an homage to Alaskan native artwork. The most beautiful afterlife a fish could have imagined. 

Romney's fish are prized pieces since they are all one-of-a-kind. You may see some of her fish in private collections or as commissions. I would love to have an entire school of Romney fish but at the very least that beautiful little grayling shown above must be mine one day!  

What happens when she runs out of fish? Well, once they're gone they're gone so if you want one, go buy one tout de suite. What happens for Romney? She'll have space for her next idea. 


Speaking of new ideas...Next up for Romney: Her friends at the Quilted Raven have asked her to create fabrics from her designs. Hopefully we’ll be seeing some new Romney batiks in the near future.

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If you peek in the windows of Romney's downtown studio you may catch a glimpse of some of the projects she's currently working on. 

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And if you're interested in seeing Romney's work in person, make an appointment to stop in. She's great fun and has lots of beautiful work in motion. Like her page on Facebook to keep these beauties in your feed. I'm betting you'll never see fish the same way again. 

 

Poetic waxing

AlaskaKate Begonia3 Comments

Cheryl Gibbs Lyon has always been an artist. In high school she painted with acrylics, later she focused on nudes, and for the past 10 years she has primarily been working with encaustic wax painting.

Cheryl is a very welcoming, friendly person. She strikes me as very ebullient but not in a cheerleader-y sort of way; more just naturally optimistic. Her studio is full of light and color, quite reflective of her personality. She has created a workspace out of her home that allows privacy while still being connected to her household so she can be available to her kids. It's a pretty sweet arrangement. 

I met Cheryl through high school friends and she was kind enough to let me into her space and walk me through her creative process. It was fun to see her in action and understand more about how she concepts and creates. 

Encaustic is an entirely new technique for me and watching her work was mesmerizing. She uses wood blocks, tapes off the sides to keep the painting neat, sands any rough spots, treats the wood with a medium, and then essentially melts it into the wood with a butane torch to seal it. The medium is comprised of resin and beeswax.  

This torching process is so satisfying to watch! 

The paint she uses is oil paint mixed with beeswax that comes in solid chunks. To mix her colors she uses a heated pallette and simply swipes the blocks of color around the tray and swirls them together. To dilute colors she adds plain beeswax to the warm plate. 

Once she is satisfied with the colors she keeps them on a warming tray for accessibility. 

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The next step is to do a rough sketch of her intended design. Cheryl uses a Stabilo Woody 3 in 1 wax pencil. These early guide marks will end up being subsumed by the wax and won't be visible in the finished product.   

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And now, we paint! Using a light touch with her brush, she layers the paint across the wood. 

After she's satisfied with each layer, she fuses the wax with the butane torch again. She continues this technique repeatedly - layering colors, manipulating the wax, and then sealing with the torch. 

With each layer of wax and subsequent fusing, the painting changes. New colors are created and older layers are revealed, adding intense texture to each piece. Fauvism has been a major influence for her and you can see that come through in her work. 

It was surprising to me that the wax fused so solidly. That said, don't keep them near any heat source, keep them out of the sun, (and don't feed them after midnight...) They can also get nicked or chipped if you don't take care when handling them. The cool thing is that the colors will always stay true; you won't see any fading over time. And if the piece gets a little dull, simply buff it with a soft cloth to return the painting to its original luster. 

Cheryl is constantly experimenting and trying new approaches in her work. She's inspired by nature and her love of the Alaska wilderness is very evident in her pieces. Her sunflowers are very popular (and sold exclusively at Dos Manos) and I really love her landscapes. Cheryl's work can be seen in Anchorage at Georgia Blue Gallery as well as Sevigny Studio. If you would like to meet Cheryl, please let me know, I would be happy to introduce you. Otherwise, like her Facebook page so you can keep seeing these moving creations. 

Chaga Chaga boom boom

AlaskaKate Begonia7 Comments

I grew up in Alaska and always wondered what the black bulbous things were on the side of birch trees (but I guess I was never curious enough to ask!) Mystery solved - they're a fungus called Chaga. But not just any kind of fungus, a medicinal one.

Photo credit:  alaskachaga.us

Photo credit: alaskachaga.us

On my most recent trip back home we took a boat ride down the Susitna River with Mahay's Jet Boat Adventures and took a short hike around an island which had a beautiful boreal forest. There were a few locals admiring all the chaga in the trees, which made me curious.  So when I saw the Boreal Botanicals booth with bottles of Chaga at the Saturday market in Homer the following week, I was ready with questions.

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After speaking with Anne, one of the owners, and doing some research myself, here's what I learned.

  • Chaga is a sterile fungus found primarily on Birch trees.

  • It's black on the outside with a golden brown inside.

  • They can weigh up to 10 lbs.

  • Chaga only grows in very cold climates like, Alaska, Russia, Korea, Northern Europe, etc.

  • It takes 3-10 years for the Chaga to mature enough to be harvested.

  • Chaga should only be harvested from live trees, without damaging the tree itself.

  • Once harvested, it is broken into chunks.

  • It can be brewed into a tea, made into a tincture, or ground into a powder to be added to foods. (I also came across a reference to smoking it, but let's just not go there.)

Documented use of Chaga goes back to 16th century Siberia, and in the 12th century Tsar Monomakh used Chaga to cure his lip cancer. Mentions of it can be found from the ancient Romans. There are legends from 3,000 B.C. that tell of a birch fungus used to treat health concerns. It's been used by native cultures in Alaska for hundreds of years as well. And present day, the health benefits of Chaga are being studied more and more.

Some of these purported benefits include:

  • The highest levels of antioxidants of any food in the world.

  • In addition to numerous vitamins and minerals it contains significant levels of vitamins B, D, and K. As well as zinc, copper, calcium, potassium, iron and manganese (talk about a super food!)

  • Cognition enhancing (focus, people!)

  • Lowers cholesterol

  • Improves digestion

  • Detoxifies the liver

  • Lowers blood pressure

  • Helps with hormonal imbalances (hello puberty! hello menopause!)

  • Anti-bacterial

  • Anti-viral

  • Lowers blood sugars

  • Tumor reducing benefits

  • Fights inflammation

  • Slows the aging process

  • Relieves symptoms of stress

So, that's what I've got for you. I think it's pretty darned interesting and I'm intrigued enough that I've started taking the tincture daily, and so has my 14 year-old daughter. We're both hopeful it will help soothe the symptoms of our current "life changes" and I'm curious to see if it will assist with my symptoms from Hashimoto's Disease. If you're interested in learning more about Chaga, or even trying some of the tincture, let me know!