Ester studio evokes memory of painter, Rusty Heurlin
|Rusty Heurlin’s studio in Ester in the early winter of 2017|
The cabin in the drawing was the studio for Alaska painter, Magnus Colcord “Rusty” Heurlin. Matthew Reckard, the artist’s neighbor, recently showed me Rusty’s studio.
Located on Main Street in Ester, the simple, gable-roofed log-cabin studio was built in 1965, replacing a studio Rusty constructed when he moved to Ester. (Judy Gumm, long-time Ester resident, told me that another well-known Alaskan painter, Ted Lambert, lived in Rusty’s old studio for a while.)
Rusty was born in 1895, and raised in Wakefield, Massachusetts. He attended Fenway School of Illustration in Boston for a year after high school. Then, craving adventure, he worked his way west, eventually sailing to Alaska in 1916. Landing at Valdez, he spent a winter living in Sydney Laurence‘s old studio. (Laurence moved to Anchorage in 1915.)
The United States entered World War I in April 1917, and Rusty left Alaska to enlist in the U.S. Navy. After he demobilized in 1919, Rusty enrolled at New York City’s Grand Central School of Art.
In 1921 he began illustrating stories for pulp magazines such as Adventure and Sky Birds. According to the website, “ Field Guide to Wild American Pulp Artists ” Rusty took a hiatus from illustrating in 1922, returning to Alaska to study Inupiat culture in the Point Barrow area.
He resumed illustrating magazines in 1923, and the influence of his Alaskan studies can be seen in many of his illustrations. It was as a story illustrator that he honed his skills for story-telling through his paintings.
During the 1930s, the Great Depression, coupled with advances in photographic reproduction and the advent of color photography, ended many illustrators’ careers. Rusty was no exception. By 1933 magazine commissions had dried up, and Rusty sought refuge with the Work’s Progress Administration’s Federal Arts Project.
Deciding that he could starve in Alaska just as well as he could on the East Coast, Rusty moved back to Alaska in 1935. Once here, he worked any honest job he could find—as miner, fisherman, and laborer on the Alaska Railroad. He also spent four seasons on Inupiat whaling crews along the Arctic coast. And all the while he snuck in his art studies.
When the U.S declared war on Japan in 1942, Rusty volunteered for the Alaska Territorial Guard. According to a 1945 issue of the magazine, Alaska Life, Captain Heurlin was in Barrow during an influenza outbreak and helped distribute sulfa tablets to villagers, handing out so many pills that the Inupiat called them “Rusty’s pills.”
Rusty settled in Ester, just outside Fairbanks, after the war, got married, continued to paint, and began teaching art classes at the University of Alaska (the first art classes offered at the U). He eventually left the university to devote more time to painting, but continued to teach privately. One of his students was Fairbanks artist, Ray Sandberg.
Much of his effort after leaving the university was focused on producing several series of “story-telling” murals. One of those was “The Big Stampede”—15 murals depicting the gold rush history of the Yukon and Alaska. Those murals are on display at the Pioneer Museum in Pioneer Park here in Fairbanks.
He completed two other series: “Our Heritage,” reflecting the development of Inupiat culture; and “The Great Land,” showing Alaska’s history from Russian America to statehood. Murals from “Our Heritage” used to greet visitors at the Fairbanks airport passenger terminal. Unfortunately, most of his murals except the “Big Stampede” series are now in storage at the University of Alaska.
Rusty died in 1986 but his legacy lives on through his art. If you do go searching for his studio, remember that is on private property.
- “Colcord Heurlin.” David Saunders. “Field Guide to Wild American Pulp Artists” website, www.pulpartists.com. 2015
- Conversation with Judy Gum and Matthew Reckard, both long-time Ester residents and Rusty Heurlin’s neighbors
- Fairbanks North Star Borough property records
- “Heurlin Paints History.” Jimmy Bedford. Alaska Today magazine. 1984, V. 12
- “Northern Lights.” No author. In Alaska Life: The Territorial Magazine. April 1945
- “Teacher and Student reunite through Art.” Donna Redhead Sandberg. In Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 2-11-1996