Juneau artist completes yearlong portrait series focused on everyday locals

MK MacNaughton and Sherman Johnson in his shop. Photo by Scott Burton/KTOO)
MK MacNaughton and Sherman Johnson in his shop. (Photo by Scott Burton/KTOO)

As 2015 came to a close, Juneau artist MK MacNaughton finished a yearlong art project that portrays 52 of her fellow community members — a portrait for each week of the year.

MacNaughton picked her subjects not for how they look, but for what they do, where they do it, and how hard they work at it. On 18- by 18-inch archival acid-free paper, she used charcoal to drawn portraits of a seldom recognized group of people.

A construction site in the middle of winter, in a city, in a rainforest, in Alaska, is a unique place to find inspiration for an art project.

“There were some guys working on the district building and it was January I think,” MacNaughton says.

It may sound lackluster, but she saw potential.

“It was like sideways rain, horrible snow, slush, windy, and they were there everyday. I drove by in my cozy little car, and went to my cozy little studio and I thought I should draw these guys.”

The possibilities multiplied from there. An electrician, a fisherman, a midwife, a hospital custodian, a landscaper, detox support staff, a postal carrier, a counselor, a welder — MacNaughton says her subjects work in professions that often go unrecognized all over Juneau and have “exceptional tenacity, or work ethic, or work hard jobs in the elements.”

She then conceived the portrait-a-week idea, which includes an interview and photograph of each person she draws. She started the project in the first week of 2015 and days later hung her first portrait at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center.

“I was kind of flattered really,” says Sherman Johnson. He’s portrait 33. Johnson was recommended to MacNaughton by Beth Weldon, a fire fighter who is the subject in portrait 17. Johnson has been welding, fitting and fabricating since he was a teenager. He says the work he does is hard to see because it make’s things look normal.

“Ideally, you shouldn’t tell I was there. It should look like it just came out, you know that things were just supposed to be like that,” Johnson says. “But I’m proud of my work and I’m proud of what I do. I try and do a nice job on things. You know, the quality of what I do is the driving thing for me.”

Among other jobs, AEL&P has hired Johnson to weld in the tunnels of Snettisham and to install a new valve on the Salmon Creek Dam. He’s repaired and modified countless fishing boats and is helping with the new State Library, Archives and Museum. He says a lot of work in the trades is like his — essential but invisible.

“I think that’s how a lot of these working people that MK found — that’s how they are. They get down and go do their stuff, and if it means putting on your rain gear, it mean’s putting on your rain gear. You realize there’s so much more of the world and so many people doing so many little things that your just don’t notice,” Johnson says.

Welder, Fitter and Fabricator 33 of 52
Johnson says his portrait captures what he really looks like.

MacNaughton asked her subjects questions about their work, challenges in their lives and dreams for the future. Then she took a picture. She says knowing the person informed her drawings.

“This was a picture of where … I am most comfortable,” Johnson says. “It made me smile — still makes me smile. Makes me laugh everyday.”

MacNaughton says there’s usually a gift at the end of her projects, or the answer to something personal she’s trying to figure out. In this case, she decided the time was right to transition from working at a nonprofit to teaching and exhibiting fulltime.

“I think this project has been kind of a way to give myself the courage to keep doing what I love doing,” she says.

MacNaughton gave each portrait to her subjects for free. She says the portraits took about seven hours to create — which means the project altogether took about 364 hours. She didn’t have a grant, or make any money.

At least the next time she needs a welder, or an electrician, or a landscaper, she’ll know who to call. She may even get a good deal.

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