I'm going to be speaking to some local groups about giving to the Fine Arts Fund over the next weeks. This is the story I'll be telling them:
In 1993 I visited Barrow, Alaska, the tip-top point of the North American continent, as the departure point for a dogsledding trek I was invited to take with the late great Susan Butcher and her husband Dave Monson across the North Slope to Prudhoe Bay. The journey is a whole story in itself. But what I want to tell you about is the week I spent in Barrow, an Inuit village isolated on the tundra hard against the Arctic Ocean.
Susan Butcher and I had met at a conference a year earlier and struck up an unlikely friendship – her a hearty outdoorswoman who in 1978 had been dropped into the Alaskan wilderness with four dogs and a sack of tools and who had proceeded to build for herself a cabin where she lived and trained dogs for five years before becoming a legendary four-time Iditarod champion; and me, a soft doughy cartoonist from Ohio who could have drawn her cabin beautifully, but would have frozen quietly within hours had my life depended on building it or otherwise surviving in that unforgiving environment.
Susan and her husband invited me to mush with them across northern Alaska as they groomed that year’s batch of three-year-old huskies for competition, and that’s how I found myself in Barrow in May of 1993 preparing for a five-day trek over 300 godforsaken miles of featureless ice and snow and wondering how I had gotten myself into this.
Susan Butcher was Elvis in that part of the world, and for a week I got to know the residents of Barrow as a minor figure in her entourage. We visited people in their homes, met the local dignitaries and even joined in the harvesting of a legally harpooned whale a mile out on the shelf ice of the Arctic Ocean. I could not have been on more unfamiliar turf. Well, there was no turf. It was permafrost. (I watched a work crew bury a sewage pipe by cutting into the ground with giant chainsaws one day.)
I have been in many unfamiliar situations in my life, but there was something uniquely foreign about this one. Nowhere could I find any attention given to aesthetics. In this harsh land, the only abilities that seemed to matter were the ability to find food and traverse space. The richest man in town had a weatherbeaten three-room cabin with bare walls that looked like all others. But inside we found an all-terrain vehicle, three kinds of snowmobiles, a speedboat, skis, snowshoes…and a frozen seal thawing on the living room floor.
In Cincinnati, and sometimes in other places I travel, when I mention that I’m a cartoonist ears tend to perk up in curiosity. People have questions and one sort of reaction or another. In Barrow, the mention of “cartoonist” was met with a blank stare. There were no follow-up questions. Helpfully mentioning that I drew both editorial cartoons and a comic strip only seemed to dig the hole deeper.
One man I met, trying to make conversation, said finally, “Do you hunt caribou?”
“No,” I said. “We don’t have caribou where I live.”
“Oh.” That seemed to confuse him. “Do you hunt moose?”
I told him that we didn’t have moose in Cincinnati either.
Finally, perplexed, he asked, “Then what do you hunt?”
It was hard to explain that the only thing I had ever successfully hunted for was a certain rare pen nib called the Gillott 404, and that I’d had to Google it six or seven different ways before finding it in an art supply store in lower Manhattan.
The point is that I spent the week looking for my little toe-hold in the Inuit culture and could find none. Where people must work so hard to simply survive, there was no luxury for art beyond some scratchings in whale baleen or the occasional quilt. No one I met in Barrow would have wasted valuable resources on something as functionless as a painting or a violin. The lack of color and music deadened my senses and had the cumulative effect of draining me of joyfulness. I was relieved when we left, even to mush across 300 miles of polar bear territory standing on the runners of sleds.
Since that experience I have wondered how many Mozarts or Rembrandts, Warhols, Disneys, DeNiros, Springsteens or Baryshnikovs have been born into places that did not understand them or support their passions and which subsequently did not become richer for the gifts they have to give to their communities or, for that matter, to the world. These are the colorless places, the deadening places, the places where vibrant spirits go to wither and die.
You may think that the arts are for someone else. You may be an infrequent museum-goer and theater may not be your thing. But the arts, the artists and the art students of this community reach you every day in a hundred different ways and lift your spirits anyway.
As an editorial cartoonist who wades waist-deep into this town’s idiosyncracies every day, I know that, with all its charms, this can be a trying place to live. Don’t try to do it without the color, the fun, the richness and the joy the arts have to give.