With only $60 in his pocket, Gary Freeburg began an expedition to Alaska. Faced with bears, freezing temperatures and complete isolation, he entered the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and returned with art.
“My grandfather said [to me], ‘This is Mt. McKinley. It’s in Alaska and I hope someday you’ll go there. I’m not going to have a chance to see it, but I hope that you will go there someday and see this place,’” said Freeburg, the director of JMU’s Duke Hall Gallery.
After serving in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, Freeburg worked various jobs until he found his passion for photography. Freeburg studied under renowned artists Oliver Gagliani, Ansel Adams and John Schultz.
“Ansel taught me the absolute joy of being in nature and taking advantage of the beauty of the Earth, which is what he did in his photography,” Freeburg said.
Freeburg spent 25 years in Alaska working for the University of Alaska, the National Park Service and Kenai Peninsula College, as well as other various companies. He began his journey in Sitka, Alaska.
“I landed on an island,” Freeburg said. “And with the first breath I took I said, ‘I’m home.’ It felt so good, and that was the place I needed to be.”
While working at the University of Alaska, Freeburg built an entire art gallery, running over 153 exhibitions himself. The gallery is still open today.
“I think one of the high points in my life up there was that I came into a community where there wasn’t any visual art other than a small art guild that produced things for sale,” Freeburg said. “When I left in 2001, and for years afterwards, we built up something really important.”
Freeburg didn’t spend all his time in the classroom. He took trips to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. After the eruption of volcano Novarupta in 1912, thousands of funeral vents released steam and ash from the ground. This caused a continuous smoke that still fills the valley from 1912 to today. The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is located in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska.
“I knew that if Gary and I were chased by a bear, I’d end up being the meal,” George Johnson, a media arts and design professor who traveled with Freeburg, said.
After viewing some of Freeburg’s work and hearing about his explorations, Freeburg and Johnson ventured to Alaska to create the PBS documentary, “An Artist’s Journey to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes: The Photography of Gary Freeburg.” The documentary features three main stories using Freeburg’s photography: The Novarupta eruption’s effect on the people, geological facts and Freeburg’s trips to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
“It’s an incredible place, and it’s not for everyone to go visit,” Johnson said. “When you’re out there, if you said one thing, the person across the valley would be able to hear it ... It’s just quiet. If you have to have stimulation, that is not the place for you. You’re down to nothing; it’s survival.”
With a photographer’s lens as an instrument of art and protection, Freeburg has brought many rare pictures back from dangerous situations. Last summer Freeburg had a dangerous bear encounter while working in Aniakchak. A bear snapped his jaws at Freeburg, claiming the area as his camp. Turning its body sideways, the bear treated Freeburg as a threat.
“It means either you have to move away or they are going to come after you,” Freeburg said. “So I wrapped a big sleeping bag around me and walked away. The bear stopped, and I left and stayed away until he walked off in the brush.”
After many years of working in Alaska on the arts, Freeburg came to JMU to teach with his wife, art professor Kathy Schwartz. In 2008 he was named director of the Duke Hall Gallery of Fine Art, formerly known as the Sawhill Gallery.
“He has done so much in his lifetime, especially with his photography,” Noelle Go, a senior art history major and intern at Duke Hall Gallery, said. “The idea that he is a man of many wisdoms and many experiences, whether that be 15 minutes or two hours of talking with Gary, just from spending time with him, you will learn so much from him.”
After 10 years at JMU as director, Freeburg will retire after this academic year.
“I’ll be around. I’ll be in and out. I’d like to be able to always hang around this place,” Freeburg said. “Who knows? I might teach another class. Who knows? I have other projects I need to work on and I have a boat. A boat I haven’t sailed hardly at all that just wants to go sailing.”
Freeburg looks forward to continuing his independent work as a photographer, writer and artist. He plans on making frequent trips to Alaska.
“An adventurer, that’s what he is,” Johnson said. “You don’t meet too many people like that.”
Contact Teresa Cummings at email@example.com.