the pantry

Dine with Duke Russell

By David Whitmire | December 04, 2017
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Elevating the Everyday

Here’s a potent notion: we can enhance everyday satisfaction by simply improving the way we purchase the most routine items. And does it get any more basic than plates? If you’re looking to ditch the disposables or the latest from Target and supplement the dining experience using one-of-a-kind dinnerware, look no further than Spenard artist Duke Russell. He has turned the everyday into the sublime, suitable for home (cabins to casbahs), picnics after a Tanana River float, for serving reindeer dogs on your next Mc-Carthy road trip, or feeding a dozen at that upcoming Auke Bay potluck.

You may know the Duke of today — he’s a regular vendor at the Spenard Farmers Market and his work graces walls around the state (and Outside). But let’s go back a bit.

Duke hit the ground running, in the third grade, as he says, “obsessively drawing.” As a 12-year-old, packing his art kit, bicycling downtown Anchorage where he would “draw and observe.” Enthused? Oh yeah. A natural? Well, Duke’s quick to admit, “I wasn’t very good at it.” But he felt compelled to stick with it. Like the wheels of his bike, he kept churning forward.

As a young adult he took his eye and compulsion on the road. Sometimes finding himself down to loose change and needing food, he’d “whip out a couple of t-shirts.” The artist as itinerant living by his wits and paints. And he worked in bike shops, ran bike shops, wheels always moving him ahead.

In the 70s and 80s, Duke took on set art for Alaska Repertory Theatre where, as he says, he learned “old school techniques” and the necessity of getting the job done. No languid hours of contemplating the canvas and gazing into the ether for this artist. Having never really strayed from the idea of art as work, it’s easy to conjure up a guy in worn Carhartts, digging his shop foundation, laying block, then stowing those tools and picking up a paint brush.

Today, four decades on from that 12-year-old kid, living in and inextricably attached to Spenard, Duke is incessantly creating pieces evocative of Alaska — but not your typical moose and mountain art often associated with state. Yes, there are ridges, peaks and waves, but likely not as one would expect. As he says about all his art, “I like constantly keeping people slightly off balance.”

Duke’s art has a graphic and brash feel, high-gloss and eye-catching, some reminiscent of folk artist R. Crumb or work from Mad Magazine. There are kaleidoscopic renderings, along with photographic adaptations and comic book style postcard collections, greeting cards, as well as posters.

It is not a leap to consider his urban ‘scapes emblematic of Alaska. Painted drawings of people in neighborhoods, structures, busy streets, businesses, the sum of which constitutes community, an overarching theme in much of his work. In his own words, from a Alaska Public Media film by Indie Alaska, which you can view on his website, it’s “life architecture,” art with heft: singular, arresting, and thoroughly entertaining.

How about those plates? Taking a break from commission work, Duke set about finding a way to transfer his work to 11” dinner plates. Melamine is the preferred base medium as it is tough, light, and washable. Now you can serve up culinary creations leaving your guests to uncover Duke’s signature style as they eat.

> Find your favorites among over 70 designs on Duke’s website.

Article from Edible Alaska at
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