Artist Profile Story by Mara Severin
Flying geese, striding moose, grazing caribou, a fisherman with his catch, an Eskimo drumming, a grizzly with its slippery salmon dinner – not much stands still in Erik Behnke’s vision of Alaska. His energetic and whimsical illustrations bring Alaska’s wild world to life in thick, confident, black lines and dazzling saturated color. The energy of his subjects practically leaps out of the frame.
Erik had a fascination with drawing from childhood, says his mom, Linda Thompson. “He would con me into buying magazines full of images he was interested in, then take them home and trace them.” By the spring of 1997 Erik had dresser drawers full of thousands of tracings. “It was crazy,” says Linda. “I had a room dedicated to them.”
Erik, who has Down syndrome, was, in fact, taking the first steps towards a career in art. “There was something that caught my eye in the way he colored them,” recalls Linda.
Erik had developed a unique technique that gives his work a distinct look. Short, strong strokes of color create a sort of web that conveys energy and strength. “Erik took this medium to another level,” says Linda. “It is entirely his own style. There’s no other professional out there who does what Erik does.” She showed them to a friend who said, “I’d pay good money for this,” and that’s what got Linda thinking.
Linda had recently earned her certification in special education and was teaching in the Copper River area while living with Erik in Kenny Lake. They spent the winter of 1998 putting together a portfolio of his work. “I had to learn from the ground up how to help him,” she says. “I had to learn about the right kind of paper and the right kind of professional markers.” They put together about 40 works and spent spring break in Anchorage looking for a market.
It was either luck or fate that the first gallery owner who got to see his work was Diane Louise of Aurora Fine Arts. “I walked up and said, ‘this is Erik and I’m his teacher,’ ” says Linda. “He’s been working on his art and I wonder what you think of it.” Diane looked at the portfolio thoughtfully. “She said, ‘I have an announcement to make. I want to be the first gallery to introduce Erik to the world,’” recalls Linda. “It made me cry. It was 15 years ago and it still makes me cry.”
In 2001, Erik signed a contract to design the art for the 2001 Special Olympics World Winter Games – the largest sporting event to ever be held in Alaska. His joyful drawings of winter athletics were seen by thousands of people from all over the world. And he was exposed to something as well, says Linda. “It exposed him to the world of people with disabilities.” After Erik had the opportunity to present his art to a famous athlete during opening ceremonies, other Special Olympics athletes approached him, says Linda. “They would say, ‘We didn’t know we had somebody famous in our group. It makes me proud to be who I am.’ ”
The magic in Erik’s work is in the way he connects with his subjects – a way of seeing inside them and bringing them emotionally to life. The mysterious geometry in a panther’s face seems to show the animal's complexity. The cast of the eye of a humpback whale conveys serenity for some, says Linda, and sadness for others. The tenderness between a mother moose and her newborn calf is shown in the way the animals fit together, like puzzle pieces. The uncontained joy and excitement on the faces of a team of sled dogs anticipating a day on the trail – their energy practically leaps off the page.
Erik, like his subjects, is always on the go. “He’s the perfect man to live with,’ laughs Linda. “If I want to do anything, he says, ‘I’ll go!’ ” It could be a hike, a restaurant or even a trip across the country. “He’ll always say, ‘I’ll go!’ ” And that’s a good thing, because Erik’s artwork has taken the family not only all around Alaska – working art and music festivals through the summer – but all around the country. Erik’s art has been shown in Washington DC, Spokane, Boston, Kansas City, Denver, Phoenix and New York City where his work was displayed at the United Nations.
Recently Linda opened Brown Bear Products, a gallery on the Homer spit, to show Erik’s work and other local artists. Erik works there several hours a day. They hope to do more nationwide conferences sharing Erik’s art and story with more people.
“I want parents who have children with a disability to look beyond it and look for the abilities instead. All children have them – they just have to be found.”