The Rainforest Painter
“I like the dark. I have vampire tendencies,” jokes painter Mary Ida Henrikson inside her Ward Cove home out the road from Ketchikan. It’s a rare dry, bright morning outside, but her den is shadowed. A bearskin rug drapes an overstuffed chair near a stone hearth. Books overload shelves beside animal skulls, a stuffed bird and what appears to be a human skull, part of a teaching skeleton from her classes 30 years ago. A giant mammoth femur rests on the mantle like a Flintstones prop come to life — Henrikson dug it from a riverbank outside Fairbanks years back.
Large windows beside Henrikson’s easel overlook devil’s club thickets and the verdant coastal temperate rainforest that so inspires this forest artist. She looks at her near-finished oil painting, clearly in conversation with the woods outside. Tree trunks meet the forest floor. The large canvas is subtly sectioned off in a nine-part symmetrical grid. Something like a horizon line hinges the forest floor to the subterranean, where an abstract kind of rootwad, or cave, or nucleus glows, flanked by Henrikson’s latest forest fascination — mushrooms.
Henrikson’s artwork documents her connection to the temperate rainforest and her concern for the environment. “I’ll put in detail with my oil pens and then it will be done. I have eight more white canvases over here that will be part of that series.” Her palette — an antique milk glass cake plate — sits on a side table beside bouquets of brushes. The smell of coffee and smoked salmon quiche wafts from the kitchen. “You can snoop all you want. Everything is for sale because I have two of everything.”
At 75, Henrikson lives happily alone, the last of three sisters. What looks like a bear tooth (or vampire?) hangs like an amulet around her neck. Turns out it’s a wooden knot from a decayed, windblown cedar, “fossilized with oil paint.” She was born and raised in Ketchikan, back before its economy shifted from fish to timber. She went to college at Central Washington University and earned her MFA at Claremont Graduate University, near Los Angeles. She’s been painting since she was 13. “Oh god, we had good art teachers,” she says, thinking back. “There’s never ever been a question about what I was. I just had to figure out a way to afford it. And so I worked on the ferry. Worked at Prudhoe Bay and the Brooks Range on the pipeline. I helped build the pipeline.” She also taught at Ketchikan Community College and University of Alaska Southeast.
Wherever she’s roamed, the Tongass in Southeast Alaska has always been home. She reminisces about the many years she spent working on ferries throughout the Inside Passage and shows off her small boat, tucked into the garage for winter. With it, she can access her off-grid cabin further up Revillagigedo Island, beyond reach of the road. She’s had the place for over twenty years and is building a new cabin with help from her Rasmuson Foundation Fellowship award.
The forest surrounds her home, and her home is full of art and objects evoking that forest and its waterways. Her paintings adorn walls, nooks and crannies. They’re cached in the small guest bedroom and in the kitchen. Most are abstract with some realistic elements. Colorful fantasies depict blue tarps and moss, symmetrical grid patterns and wild rhizomes. They include salmon and trees, mushrooms and water, soil and fire. The paintings get at the “unseen connections,” she says.
Like the ecosystems she studies, inhabits and interprets, her paintings are layered. Her underpaintings incorporate vivid color bases, and sometimes she uses masking tape or adhesive postal stamp cutouts to lend texture or form. Henrikson keeps prepared canvases on hand and creates series of related paintings that all ruminate on a theme.
She paints all the time and relishes the feeling of getting into the zone, of losing herself to the process. Reflecting on her Rasmuson Foundation Fellowship, Henrikson quips “It’s not gonna change my life. I’m going to get up in the morning. I’m gonna paint. And then I’ll go to bed at night. It’s not going to change a thing.” She’s half-kidding. The award has had a big impact and came just in time.
“The grant was very important because it was the last year I was going to apply for it. And I really wanted one. I really wanted that recognition.” Like many artists, Henrikson applied for years before she was selected. Though she’s traveled a lot throughout her life, she said that one reason she wasn’t going to apply again was “because I don’t travel anymore. It hurts to travel.” She relished the trip to Anchorage for the award ceremony, though. “I met so many fabulous people … What the Rasmuson Foundation grant did was give me status — I hadn’t had a show in Juneau since the ’70s. What it gave me was entrée into that community. And it gave me the seed money to buy my studio out there, and that’s what my cabin is — it’s my studio — and that will keep me alive until I’m 103. And I’ll be working.”
Henrikson’s curiosity-fueled creative work spills over into other disciplines. She’s published articles, worked in other visual art modes, and wrote a book documenting her research on Southeast Alaska’s “fire trees” — culturally modified red cedar trees hollowed out by flame. The ones still alive now were created and used by Alaska Native people before contact with Russians or Europeans. The book includes written accounts of her research into the little-known nature of the trees, speculation about their origins and uses, and drawings, paintings and photographs that “artistically and intuitively” imagine the trees’ meanings. Henrikson writes, “I began my investigation of fire trees as a reporter would: by interviewing elders and exploring local forests. However, I am first an artist and I live very close to the land, so I also yielded to the inner voice of artistic creative thinking.” By disseminating her book, giving talks at schools, and conversing with elders and scientists, Henrikson has boosted awareness about the trees’ existence and their surprising geographic range.
Out at Settlers Cove at the end of the road, Henrikson exudes delight as she walks the trails through the forest, her foremost muse, leading the way on The Hollow Cedar Beach Access Trail. The trail’s namesake tree is easily the most viewed fire tree anywhere, but the whole southern Tongass archipelago is rife with them, waypoints in her mental map. She talks ecology, biology and anthropology, pointing out other fire trees and nurse logs, describing the underground networks connecting mushrooms, talking about salmon and the ocean. She tells stories about boats and islands, artists and galleries, sea lions and bears, home and travels. She scrambles off-trail down to a favorite low-tide beach. She moves with the awareness and familiarity of one who’s known a place for a long time and seen it change.
The water is flat, broken only by mergansers and seals. A skiff motors up Clover Passage past Hump Island. She swings her binoculars ahead of it, focusing on her own distant cabin in the distance, part of her summer habitat. It waits for her like another primed canvas, tucked into the Tongass where she belongs.