I tell a little story when people ask me how I got to Alaska:
As a teenager, I read the book The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman and became fascinated with seeing the northern lights. I lived in the suburbs of Boston, MA where aurora isn’t really a thing. So I headed north once, twice, and finally a third time which was my breaking point. I moved to Alaska.
There. That’s the story. Of course, there’s the more comprehensive version, too. It’s LONG. But, unlike the quick version, it also tells the story of how and why I began painting.
Since this weekly blog is going to serve as a place to share the ups, downs, and messiness around Alli Harvey Art, I figure we should start with how I got to Alaska and started painting. This will be a longer blog post than anything else I’ll write here, so if you’re staying, get cozy.
Here’s the full story. It starts the same:
As a teenager I read the book The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman and became fascinated with seeing the northern lights. I lived in the suburbs of Boston, MA where aurora isn’t really a thing. So I put “see the northern lights” on my mental bucket list and shelved the book and the idea for the future, whenever that would be.
Meanwhile, I grappled with who I was as a human. Everyone does this (especially teenagers) but I was particularly keen on figuring this out because I truly didn’t know where to start. There’s this big gap for me between childhood and young adulthood, roughly between the ages of 7 – 13, where my major hobby was putting up with chronic asthma and cultivating a little world around that. I was typically absent from school and other activities. I skulked around my house like a good moody teenager, had hospital stays scattered throughout the year, and used the nebulizer next to my bed. I tried to be “normal”, like anyone, including maintaining friendships and a social life, and I did okay at it considering, but my world revolved around my asthma.
Sitting in bed, I’d often draw pictures. I’d use either photographs or magazine clippings as a model and sketch away in a book. One time I drew the contents of my closet for an art assignment at school, and the teacher remarked – seemingly surprised – that it was actually quite good.
Then when I was thirteen I had an asthma attack that dang near killed me, and at the same time air quality test results came back from my public school. The air quality was, well, bad. The school knew it, and informed us they were tearing the building down the following year. In the meantime, they offered to pay out the taxpayer dollars that would have gone to my public education so we could find someplace…else for me to attend. Coincidentally there was a private school nearby whose tuition exactly matched the payout, and which had an open campus policy. At the time, my folks figured that the open campus policy would allow me to attend my many doctor’s appointments, so they were (mostly) willing to overlook the other parts.
Like, the fact that there was no mandatory curriculum at this school. There were no real classes at all, at least not in the way that you normally think of classes. Maybe there would be a handful of self-organized classes scattered throughout any given week, but those were not the focal point of the school; not at all. As a student I could choose to spend my time exactly however I wanted, as long as I wasn’t interfering with anyone else’s ability to do so. Let me say it again: at this school, I would decide exactly how to spend my time. I was 14.
Once I enrolled, my asthma disappeared exactly overnight. So there was no reason from my parents’ perspective for the open campus policy anymore; I didn’t need all the doctors. But even though the philosophy was not exactly my dad’s cup of tea, I was hellbent on staying. I had a glimpse of being able to figure my shit out there, and I was NOT going back.
As one does when one is committed to “figuring out one’s shit”, I spent my first full week learning how to knit. I spent my first full year flitting from social group to social group, mostly as an observer, and sitting in the middle of a lawn writing angsty poetry into a spiral bound notebook. So: I mostly did nothing. When my dad demanded to know when I was going to take a math class (coming from an understandable place, I think, of parental concern about me making it out there in the world), I inarticulately sobbed that by deciding what I did every day – which did not include math class – I was doing the most important thing I could for myself. I couldn’t explain it, and I certainly, at that point, could not prove it.
Then by year two I had an epiphany. By doing “nothing” the only person I was cheating was myself. And, I should clarify, it wasn’t really nothing that I was doing – I was flatlining, in a way, but also just taking a full year of a reset and drift after many years of being a full time asthmatic, lost in herself. I was passively exposing myself to an entire school of humans who seemed so distinct from one another, pursuing things they loved. Over that year of “nothing” it started to seep into me that my life could be mine, too. And there was no one around to tell me exactly how to do it. That was on me.
My motivation was to create a life where I could play, explore, and fulfill. I didn’t want to look back at my life with disappointment in what I could have done. I felt terrified. And thrilled.
One of the things I did with my subsequent time at school was figure out how to inhabit my body. That was a struggle (have I mentioned I was a teenage girl?!), but I was also extremely lucky to have opportunities to get outside. I went on school trips to the White Mountains in New Hampshire, where a mentor confessed to me years later that he wasn’t sure I would make it. I wheezed, red-faced and extremely not in shape, my entire way uphill. But once at the destination, I couldn’t believe my own legs could carry me there. The alpine air smelled like balsam. And I was surrounded by people I loved and respected. I felt a sense of connection and awe like I never had before.
I was hooked.
Another thing I did was move my bedroom drawings onto canvas, using acrylic paint. It started with an innocuous suggestion made to me by my chosen art mentor: why don’t you try your drawings, but with paint? And I figured what the hell, why not.
I sat in the art room for hours using a sitting easel and painstakingly applying paint to canvas, dimly aware of the ambient noise of conversations, people coming in and out to check out what was going on, and other projects going on around me. Acrylic is forgiving in that it dries, and you can layer over it. I don’t know how many layers were on that first painting, but when it was done I knew it. It was one of the hardest things I’d ever done, and I’d experienced that same sense of terror combined with thrill throughout the process. I had to try another painting, to keep pushing; to find that edge where I couldn’t go any farther.
So, I painted another one. And you know where that goes – soon I had accumulated a sizable body of paintings because, again, I was fortunate to be at this school that allowed me to decide how I use my time.
My art mentor suggested I show my work at a local gallery. I called up Barnes and Noble, and they graciously set a date with me to hang my paintings on the wall of the Starbucks inside the store.
But they had one question for me the week before the showing that somehow blindsided me. The easy question – what are the names of my paintings?; I’d already done that. But they wanted to know how much I was selling them for, so they could include that information with the titles.
I asked my mentor. What should I do?! She asked me if I wanted to sell the paintings. I said, no, not really. So she suggested I price them beyond what they were worth. When it came to setting a price tag, she was unhelpful in determining that for me. But she did encourage me several times to bump my number up, and up again.
I had my art opening and one by one, my paintings sold. Some to family friends, and some to strangers. It was baffling, and exciting.
I had a dizzying amount of money for a 16 year old. Sure, I also had a job. But this was more than just the cost of my car, insurance, or food. This was real money.
I remembered about The Golden Compass, and the aurora. And I decided to visit Alaska.
Fast forward a few years, and the most bitter (maybe one of the only) fights I ever got into with my grandma was about whether I should pursue art school or not. I said no. She said yes. Her argument: I had talent and I should develop it. My argument: I could develop that at any time, all the time; what I really wanted was to explore something new – something else I could do in the world. Going to art school was never an option in my mind.
So, I went for something completely different. I embarked on another career, connecting with what I cared about from a different vantage point. I ultimately moved to Alaska, having been drawn back twice, and then a third time. And art was mostly latent; something that hummed in the background on and off. Many people in my life had no idea I painted. Some years I was prolific; other years I slacked or was just too hammered at work to put much into painting.
And now, 2019, I’m making the decision to focus on art. Not full time; roughly ¼ time (which in practical terms means 12 hours a week, including evenings and weekends).
Which brings me here.
I’m starting this blog not just about painting. The paintings themselves are not just about painting or canvas; they’re about what happens when the scales of maintaining the status quo tip toward “do something” rather than “do nothing”. I figure out what little bit of perspective I want to bring in the world, and I have to want it badly enough to dedicate hours to struggling with a canvas. Every painting I do rides that wave of terror and thrill of whether or not this will be the one I finally am unable to do, and every time I finish one I feel surprise and relief, and the push toward what’s next. And bringing a business into the world?! That is the biggest creative endeavor I have ever taken on, so far.
I’m writing this because the themes of creation, stagnation, tearing your hair out, celebrating achievements, feeling hopelessly lost, finding inspiration, and figuring out how to make a dent in the world add up to define what I consider a meaningful life. Me embarking on making something bigger out of painting, once again, is one way to enter into the messiness, and excitement, of being part of the world. I paint because I want to share a sense of wonder and beauty that I see in our every day lives. I believe we each need to be and deserve to be connected to that feeling; that it’s healing and inspiring for each of us, and having a deep sense of joy is part of what enables us to better connect to ourselves and each other.
So this writing will be part of that. It’s about the paintings, sure; and about me wrestling with business, and how to manage all of it in the dumpster fire of my schedule. But in a deeper way it’s about sharing pieces of every day beauty in the world, even and especially in the unknown, the routine, and the new.
I am so glad to have met you. Your honesty, insight, and sense of purpose are refreshing and inspiring. When I return to Alaska in late January I want to introduce you to several of my former students and get together to discuss creativity, purpose, and the joy of creation as working artists. Than you very much for this sharing. To a life of creative purpose! John Barton
John!! I am so glad to have met you, too. Thank you for dropping by and for leaving this encouraging comment; it’s awesome to know I’m barking up the right tree here. Please do let me know when you’re back in AK. Would love to get together and am happy to host, if you want. Safe travels in the meantime and stay in touch! – Alli
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