Story by Logan Harrison
Photos by Dikeos Foudeas
Jim Gleason didn’t come to the door the second time I visited his Talkeetna home. His wife, Beverly, let me in and pointed toward the stairs that lead to his studio. I went up and there was Jim, working away on a new piece in his little loft. He greeted me, but hardly looked up until he was finished with his stroke and rinsed the brush off in his water-filled pickle jar. The formalities were over. He was working and didn’t have time for much of anything that would keep him from it.
“I’m a working artist, 99 percent of the time it’s what I do,” he has told me multiple times now. “I’m not just a weekend, fart-around painter.”
There is no reason to doubt his devotion or work ethic. His studio gets smaller every day as he adds to different piles of paintings that clutter his work station. He had a handful of paintings on display that had been finished since my last visit, two weeks prior.
Jim has devoted his time to art in one form or another his entire life. He originally wanted to be a writer, but eventually realized he’d rather paint a scene than write about it.
“I was going to be the greatest writer ever,” he said. “It was just too much work… I couldn’t just let it flow and get the idea down and then reconstruct it. It’s easier for me to paint because, if it isn’t any good, you just throw it away and do another one. But a book is labor.”
Before Jim made his way to Talkeetna, he shared a gallery with a metal sculptor in Monterey, California. He also studied animation for a short time at Evergreen State College in Washington and took on a role in a Neil Simon play at a small theater he and Beverly were working at as caretakers, though Jim made it clear he preferred building sets than performing on them.
Now 78, Jim has settled into his preferred artistic medium: painting.
“If you’re going to be an artist you haven’t got a choice, first of all,” he said as he broke down his philosophy of an artist. “It gets you. You can look, and you can go to school, you can do whatever you want. But if it doesn’t grab onto you… I keep trying different things and I have no plans of fame, or any of that crap. I just want to do a painting that I really like. I always figure that the next one is going to be the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Jim doesn’t show his work as much anymore, having been spurned by too many galleries and their high commission prices, although he has shown over the years with other Alaska artists, such as the late Byron Birdsall. When he does show, there are pieces that he wouldn’t sell.
“Journey’s End” is a composition Jim painted as homage to a trip he took to go see his father in Ohio. The painting depicts a young man walking down a dirt road, heading toward a nearby farm. Jim considers it to be one of his favorite pieces he has ever done, and the personal meaning of the painting keeps the price tags clear.
As much as he loves what he does, Jim admits that it hasn’t all been easy. But the older he gets, the more convinced he is that he never had much of a choice. Beverly has worked for years, he said, so he could continue working as an artist. He says that his wife has been his biggest supporter over the years, something that hasn’t been lost on him.
“Sometimes I would like to have been a normal guy who went to 9-to-5, make a paycheck every week, all that shit,” he said. “But it wasn’t in the cards for me.”
The Gleasons originally moved to Talkeetna in the early 1970s, before moving back for good in the mid-1980s. There doesn’t seem to be a place Jim would rather be as he continues his work.
“I have a lot more time here, where I can really just isolate myself and choose any social thing I wanted when I wanted it,” he said. “you know, spoiled brat kind of an attitude about it because it’s more important than anything else. I got to paint. I can’t stop, I don’t want to stop.”
Jim might be picky about his social outings, but it becomes clear that he has quite a hold on the heart of Talkeetna when talking to other residents of the town. His work can be found in many homes and, although he veers away from typical shows these days, he does have a steady supply of work on display in one of the local coffee shops. When he does show his work, Jim says locals buy it up before outsiders have a chance to do so.
“When I have a show, local people come and buy the work,” he said. “People got so damn much of my work, I don’t know where they put it or where they get the money to keep buying it. But they don’t want anybody else to have it.”
Even though arthritis has made things more difficult for him, as well as his shoulders being shot and his right elbow further complicating things, Jim has come to terms with the nuances of aging.
Jim has accepted his art as his mission, something that resonates with me as I approach my own crossroads. I’m weeks away from graduating and have no idea what the bleep I’m going to do. And here is Jim, not putting too much stock in the monetary value of his time. He enjoys what he does, perhaps even loves it. He continues working and trying new things with the hope of finding that next great Gleason painting after another full day in his studio.
“As long as I can breathe, I probably will be painting or drawing or carving or something,” he said. “I don’t know what else to do now. I’m stuck. I wouldn’t trade it anyway.”