By Lainey Papageorge
Everyone knew if the wooden handle was stuck down into the bed of her bright yellow pick-up truck with the straw section standing upright, Bea was flying high on her broom, inviting us to join whatever adventure she happened to be manifesting on those rare, idyllic blue-sky-summer days. She hauled ass around the dusty streets of Skagway stopping here and there to holler, “Get ready to hop on … I’ll be back around to pick you up in five minutes!”
Bea was our very own good witch, brewing mischief, laughter and wanderlust wherever she chose to scatter her sparkle – and you betcha we stopped work, or whatever we were doing, to scramble onto her merry-making bandwagon. None of us knew where we were headed, but we would have followed her anywhere.
In 1977, Bea decided that Ole (acute accent on the “e”) Slettevold, a crusty gentleman who owned the Klondike Klothes Rush Laundry with his wife, Betty, should build the women artists of Skagway a cooperative work/retail space. I never knew exactly who paid to build the Skagway Women Artists’ Co-op, but Bea bewitched Ole to construct six small, horse-like stalls for our workshops above his laundromat. Upstairs, the workshops had a common area enclosed by a railing that overlooked a small retail storefront on Main Street.
Ole was a Nordic man of few words, yet his icy blue eyes lit up as Bea described her vision: six women artists sharing a small retail showroom with individual studios that sold their locally handmade items. Fifteen percent off the top of combined sales would pay a modest rent plus co-op maintenance, with 85% earmarked for each artist, based on individual sales each month.
It worked because Bea conjured the six women who were sure of their artistic instincts, but who also yearned to lean into one another for inspiration and critique, or just to share the day’s tragedies with tears, laughter and of course, big bear hugs. Here is the skinny on our resounding success: Bea led through community building, not command. The hexagram she created behaved like a honeycomb beehive, and folks were drawn to our nectar.
Remember Skagway at this time: White Pass was king, the federal park was in its infancy and The Road only went as far as the U.S./Canada border, or dead ended in Dyea. We had 600 year-round residents. On a good week in summer we enjoyed five to six cruise ships, two ferries and zero truck and car traffic because there was no way out except by rail, boat or small plane. Money was tight unless you worked for White Pass or as a longshoreman. Art was considered a hobby, not a money maker.
The Six Women:
1. Bea Lingle meticulously painted architectural details of historical gold rush buildings and Chilkoot Trail landscapes accented with tiny native wildflowers onto an array of odd canvases she had collected, such as old tin, gold-panning utensils, tree fungus and of course, sticks and rocks. Each one was a miniature rendering of Skagway’s historical narrative, and they sold like hotcakes.
2. Dee Wagner made stuffed animals with her own whimsical patterns that featured (sometimes) weird, comical faces which animated the critters who lived along the Lynn Canal. Her animal menagerie emitted a peculiar secret life and were instantly snatched up as quickly as she could conjure them.
3. Charlotte Irwin (Jewell) carved cottages nestled under snow-laden firs onto slices of polished fossil walrus tusk. Sculptures of marine animals, bear, moose, Dahl sheep and salmon also arose from her eclectic vision. Charlotte was the original mask wearer – her face, hair and clothes always covered in dust from her trade. Her ivory and antler carving predated the Jewell Gardens, but even then she often talked about returning Skagway to its original glory as the flower capital of Alaska. And she did.
4. Redwood Dalke was a functional potter who masterfully painted snow capped mountain scenes from her Dyea home topped with glacial vistas, through the medium of ceramic glaze, onto her hand-thrown porcelain mugs, bowls, plates and platters. Redwood always wore a print dress with a work apron over it, white clay smudged on her face and through her wild, dark hair because she absentmindedly had brushed stray curls out of her eyes with clay-coated hands.
5. Nancy Dietrick captured the essence of a blossom with watercolor and pastel chalk from the vast array of Alaska wildflowers. Nancy also wo-manned the retail area most of the time, and we were forever in her debt. Sometimes she and Redwood sang together, filling the loft with their deep beautiful voices.
6. And myself, Lainey Papageorge, a greenhorn Southern belle jeweler – sawing, lighting my torch to solder and bang away on hand-wrought gold and silver. I was intent on finding my artist’s voice through the medium of precious metals that held Charlotte’s carvings or colored gems inlaid with Yukon gold nuggets purchased straight from the Atlin, B.C. miners. I fastidiously pierced little evergreen trees and hung diamond moons over gold nugget mountains, set into rugged waterscapes, fashioning rings, bracelets and hand-wrought chains. I’ve been plying my jewelry designs professionally for fifty years, but this is where my true art form was born.
We each followed our muse as our collections sold out every season. Bea was a wise woman when she chose us to join forces as the first Skagway Women Artists’ Cooperative, maybe in all of Alaska? We were the real deal, singing our passionate love songs through our chosen medium, about the small Alaska town we knew and cherished as our home. Life was never easy for any of us, but we made it fun, inspiring one another with our successes, learning from our failures.
Our founding mother whose joie de vivre was so powerful it made us one. Bea, you will forever be sorely missed but damn, thank you for teaching us how to fly.