Aleutian Art

March 07, 2007 12:00 am

By Hilary Corrigan

Triplicate staff writer

The painting shows the pair of Aleutian Canada geese nesting in the green grass of Buldir Island, at the western edge of the Aleutian Islands that stretch off the end of the Alaska Peninsula. The gander stands guard as the female sits with goslings.

But artist Joan Dunning knows that a real-life version of the scene would show the geese hunkered low in the tall grass to avoid predators.

"There wouldn't even have been a poster if I had done it biologically correct," Dunning said of her attempt to paint the nesting pair for the 9th Annual Aleutian Goose Festival.

The event starts March 30 and each year features artwork that celebrates the main character — a migratory goose that nearly disappeared from the planet by the 1970s.

Some years, the festival organizers host art contests for all to enter. Other times, they commission artists, such as Dunning, for feature pieces.

"We had not had that particular type of image done before," volunteer Rick Hiser said of Dunning's creation. "It came out great."

Rare view

To Dunning, a nesting scene offers a rare view in Buldir Island, a remote region that fur traders skipped when they raised foxes that preyed on the geese.

To accurately paint their characteristics, Dunning watched movies on the geese, studied photos of them taken from different angles, discussed them with bird experts at Humboldt State University. She learned the birds' habits and traits that separate them from other species — the rounded shape of the Aleutian goose's head, for example.

"You really have to take seriously each little bump and bulge," Dunning said.

She has repeated the research process in her other works, as well, once using graph paper to detail the traits of two species.

"I couldn't make myself really see how really different a loon's head and body was from a duck's," she said, noting the need to boost her observation skills. "You can't just have an idea of what a bird looks like."

The Aleutian goose's life includes a 2,200-mile nonstop migration flight to the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys for the winter and a return flight to the northwest islands in the spring. Most of them stop off in Del Norte County.

"I like the story of it," Dunning said of the animal's migration and nesting strategy.

Seeing our Earth

The 58-year-old Arcata resident who moved to the northcoast in 1988 has completed several paintings and books that focus on nature, including "Secrets of the Nest," "The Loon" and "From the Redwood Forest."

Her work has focused on the loss of redwoods, the impact of logging and dam operations to area rivers, troubled salmon spawning grounds that lead to lower fish returns, fragmented rest stops on migration routes.

"One of the ways that we can see our earth is through these threads of migratory routes that these animals take. Kind of this beautiful net," she said, noting the animals that live in two worlds. "A very important link."

New projects include a book about the threatened marbled murrelet and research on the salmon of the Klamath River, another dramatic migration story that ends with the fish dying days after spawning in their home streams.

But the Buldir Island painting focuses on the other world that Crescent City's Aleutian geese visitors inhabit, "and the intimacy of the nesting season," Dunning said.

She worked on the piece off and on for about a month, using oil paints on a wooden panel.

"I want people to step away from that painting with the sense of the isolation of the pair of geese," she said. "The tenuousness of the whole process of nesting and the vulnerability of the birds and the beauty of Buldir."

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