Nineteen years ago, Missy and I took our son Eli to Denali Elementary School in Fairbanks for his first day of kindergarten. That day, I asked his teacher Katie Brown whether I could come in to read a story to the class once a week. Little did I know, that day, that I'd still be reading to that kindergarten class every Wednesday I'm in town, almost two decades later. It is, quite simply, the most purely unalloyed joy of every week in my life.
Katie Brown is a remarkable teacher, whose main mission in life seems to be trying to catch one of her students doing something good, something well, something right, and reinforce it. And Denali is an extraordinary public school--perhaps not unique, but certainly rare in Alaska or anywhere else, in its stability, sense of shared purpose and mutual encouragement, and delight in its mission. I got to know all of Eli's elementary school teachers well, reading to each of his classes weekly as he continued through the sixth grade. Five of those seven teachers are still there, almost twenty years later, along with many of the staff who helped make his elementary school experience such a rich and rewarding one. When he moved on to Middle School, I stayed, reading to Katie Brown's kindergarten class, and for several years now to another of Eli's wonderful teachers, Sharlee Reabold's, second grade class as well.
Tim Doran, who took over as Principal when Eli was in first grade, is still the Principal today, and his leadership has unquestionably fostered and helped sustain the school's continuing spirit and sense of close community. So I shouldn't have been surprised, even though I was, when he approached me several months ago to say that he wanted to commission a large painting for the dramatic two-story stairwell on the south end of the building--a space which is not only beautifully lit by big, high, southern and eastern windows, but is visible through those windows, especially on dark winter days, as the school is approached by road from the south.
Tim wanted birch trees, birch forest--my signature subject matter--and I was happy to oblige. When the two 4' x 5' paintings I've just finished are installed side by side, a foot or so apart, high in that space, I hope they will look like windows themselves, into the heart of the great boreal forest that surrounds both the school and the Fairbanks community.
Denali Elementary is full of brightly colored, wonderful art of all kinds, ranging from student work, to historical paintings purchased in the 1950's, to stained glass, sculpture, murals, mobiles, and more, some but not all of it commissioned through Alaska's Public Art Program when its new building was completed just a few years ago. Tim was able to find funding for my paintings through fundraising and the support of his PTA, and I am deeply honored that I will have a major piece of my artwork permanently enshrined in this remarkable place.