Painting the Matanuska Glacier in Alaska

In Alaska a small group of women have long had the breathtaking subarctic scenes of woods, lakes and mountains all to themselves, but for the past two years they have been sharing it with others through workshops that are growing exponentially in popularity.

Michelle Dunaway paints a model posing by Eklutna Lake.

They call themselves the Painted Ladies, and their number has varied from seven to four. But these artists from this rugged state have not been hindered by small membership when growing their annual workshop. The 2012 edition of the Great Alaskan Plein Air Retreat attracted 25 participants. The 2013 event drew more than 40. Next year’s paint-out is likely going to be on a seven-night cruise from Vancouver to three ports of call in the southeast part of Alaska — Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway, with workshops tied to either end of the event organized by the hired instructors. They are already fielding requests for reservations.

Karen Whitworth grabs a quick nap among the irises before the 2013 Great Alaskan Plein Air Retreat begins. 

This year’s instructors included Michelle Dunaway and James Buncak. Karen Whitworth, the Painted Lady who specializes in organization, reports that next year’s event will probably feature additional instructors. “The cruise ship travels through what is known as the Inside Passage, in the Panhandle of Alaska, where there are lots of glaciers, fjords, and inlets,” she says. “You are engulfed in gorgeous coastal scenes with waterfalls, rocky cliffs, and whales.”

A field of irises outside of Wasilla, Alaska, drew the Painted Ladies in late June

In late June, the retreat focused on the area around Wasilla, and the timing was right for a big field of wild irises to bloom. The Painted Ladies gathered there before the workshop to discuss last-minute details of the retreat, and to relax and paint. “The irises only bloom for about a week every year,” says Whitworth. “When that happens changes depending on what weather we have. It’s hard to make plans that time of year. Once they bloom, all bets are off — we are going painting no matter what. This particular field is just carpeted with irises.” The participants in the retreat a few days later also had a chance to paint the flowers. “We were lucky that the blooming lined up with the workshop,” Whitworth says.

Happy painters in the iris field

Another view of Eklutna Lake

The Painted Ladies are also a support for each other in the far-flung expanse of the United States’ largest state. “So many artists here would love to take workshops, but travel out of Alaska can be very expensive,” Whitworth explains. “But trips to south central Alaska are plenty doable.” The tight-knit group pulls off a surprising array of multi-disciplinary arts events in addition to the annual retreats. The Painted Ladies are one of a kind, but the world could sure use some copycats. These artists get things done.

James Buncak paints a demonstration near Matanuska Glacier

So what’s in a name? “It was a unique group in the area, so we wanted our name to stand out, too,” says Whitworth. “We first thought we would want to eventually be an association — something bigger — but then we decided that knowing each other really well and knowing what each of us are good at doing allowed us to run and organize events and programs pretty well. We like to keep it in-house.” The group remains a core of determined artists, but the world is invited to their events. But what about men? “A couple of guys have honorary status in Painted Ladies,” Whitworth says, laughing.


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