Artist Profile Story by Mara Severin
Janaan Kitchen came to Alaska in 1968 – a young military wife who would have preferred to be stationed in Germany. “I dragged my feet up the whole Alaska Highway,” she recalls with a laugh. “You can probably still see my heel marks.”
It was during her family’s brief stint in military housing that Janaan took her first art class. “I needed something to get me out of the house,” she says. Her teachers were renowned Alaskan artists Wasilly Sommer and Alex Combs. “I got such good instruction,” she says. “I was so lucky.”
When the class held an art show at the officer’s club, Janaan created a batik piece in order to stand out. “I cut one of the kids’ crib sheets and used Rit dye and paraffin,” she recalls. The piece – a stand of birch trees against a yellow sun – was given first place and the juror’s choice award. What’s more, she says, it sold. “That’s when I knew I was onto something.”
Janaan’s marriage didn’t last but her love for art and Alaska did. In fact, they became the loves of her life.
She continued doing batiks – at first using cotton, a good medium for her robust, bold style. But she began to see that batik was not widely viewed as fine art. She wanted to have her work viewed alongside oil paintings and watercolors, she says, not strictly among the quilts and macramé in craft shows. “It’s so difficult to draw the line between crafts and art,” she says. To distinguish her art, she began to work on paper – developing a way to apply the same traditional technique to a new and more delicate medium. “As far as I know, I’m the only working artist who is doing batik on paper,” she says.
As an artistic pioneer, Janaan has had to forge her own way. Even finding the right kind of paper was a challenge. “It has to be sturdy but also able to be saturated,” she explains. She purchased a single sheet of every kind of paper an art supply manufacturer made. It was “trial and error,” she says, until she found the exact weight and texture that she wanted.
The batik process is a laborious one. Layers of beeswax or paraffin are applied between applications of successively darker dyes. “Before applying the last color – black – you crush the wax to crack it and to give the batik the signature look of cracking and seeping,” she explains. Then you remove the wax by ironing it out between sheets of absorbent paper that have to be repeatedly changed out. “It definitely requires patience,” she says, adding that she usually works on three pieces with similar color palette at a time.
The process changes depending upon the subject matter. For example, she’ll use beeswax when doing human faces because it’s softer than paraffin and creates less cracking. And while she has decades of experience, the work is “often guesswork,” she says. And mistakes can be heartbreaking. “There’s no ‘fixability’ in batik, if I can coin a word,” she says. “You can’t remove dye or wax,” she says. “You get what you get.
Janaan no longer struggles to get taken seriously as a fine artist. She has created two winning Fur Rondy buttons, has twice represented Alaska with hand-painted eggs for the White House Easter display (those works now reside in the Presidential Library of George W. Bush). She created a 50-foot mural for the Crooked Creek School on the Kuskokwim River and has a piece in the permanent collection at the Anchorage Museum.
“Alaska is my muse,” she says. “There is such a diversity of subject matter. The beautiful landscapes, the wildlife and the indigenous people with their beautiful costumes and beautiful faces.” She looks for inspiration everywhere and takes every opportunity to do more and see more of our vast state. One year, while she was a volunteer for the Iditarod race, she hitchhiked up the trail via airplane, she says. “I got to see so many villages,” she says, “so many places I wouldn’t have gotten to see.”
Her works are a love song to Alaska – the vibrancy of the fireweed, the stark majesty of the mountains, the grace of the Sand Hill crane, the intelligence of the sled dog. But they are also a love song to Alaska’s people and their history – a love seen in the bowed back of the weary fisherman, the joyful face of an Alaskan Native performing a traditional ceremony, and in the loneliness of a cemetery at a Russian Orthodox church. With rice paper, wax and ink, Janaan captures her own love of Alaska and reminds us of our own.