Klara Maisch felt the cold breath of the glacier on her face as she hiked up the river of ice. Gray clouds thickened the Alaska sky, and a clap of thunder warned of a coming storm. In the flat light, it was hard to see the deadly crevasses shooting across the dirt-striped ice.
Every so often, Klara’s imagination would plunge into one of them. Then she would stop and reassure herself that she had all the safety gear she needed and had climbed this route plenty of times.
This trip, however, was different. It wasn’t about summiting the peak or skiing down it. It was about painting it.
When Klara made it to the ridge, she found a spot where the Gulkana Glacier seemed to spill out of the sky and down the valley like cream flowing from a pitcher—a stunning convergence of ice and rock that is the hallmark of the eastern Alaska Range.
She unloaded the large rolled-up canvas sticking out of her backpack and propped it against a boulder, then gathered the smoothest, flattest rocks she could find for her brushes and tubes of paint.
The next four days, Klara painted in this little art studio in the glacial moraine—a landscape carved and polished by moving ice over thousands of years.
When her legs grew numb from sitting on the jagged rocks, she took a break and climbed around or read a book.
“It’s not meant to be comfortable,” Klara says. “I think the discomfort is a good reminder that I’m a visitor here.”
Klara’s sweeping mountain scenes reflect a reverence for Alaska’s wild places—the push and pull, beauty and danger, strength and vulnerability they wield.
As an artist and wilderness guide, Klara spends a lot of time exploring these landscapes, their colors and angles and textures, as well as how she fits into them.
She says the goal is to find places that make her feel as small and insignificant as possible.
“That’s the feeling I’m constantly chasing, either on my skis or on camping trips or when I’m painting, that feeling of direct immersion in a place,” she says.
Her large oil painting from the glacier captures not just the swirling flow of ice, but the exposure she felt being up there alone. When it traveled across Alaska as part of an Anchorage Museum exhibit this summer, Klara says it was like sharing that private moment with the world.
A Different Perspective
When Leighan Falley flies through the Alaska Range in her small propeller airplane, she looks for scenic views for her passengers and good places to ski. But she also looks for scenes she can paint.
The alpinist-turned-glacier-pilot has spent untold hours in these mountains, climbing their faces and skiing down their spines. She has summited Denali half a dozen times, felt the fear, euphoria and lightheadedness of standing atop the highest point in North America. These same emotions seem to jump off her paintings.
“There’s something that just trickles into the art, if you’ve walked there or climbed on it or had life-threatening experiences on it,” Leighan says.
Leighan has had a few near misses on Denali and seen more than one fatality. She knows mountains are not just beautiful sculptures. They can also be violent.
“Sometimes this works its way into my art in the form of darkness or winds, painting a peak to look menacing or haunting—and they are,” she says.
There is no shortage of artwork paying homage to Alaska’s beauty. Artists from across the world flock to the state’s wilderness areas, float down its remote rivers and set up easels along rugged dirt roads to try to put it on paper.
But few can reach the places Klara and Leighan go, using just their feet and their mountaineering skills, nor capture the mood that exists so far away and high above the rest of the world.
A Lifelong Connection
Klara was in a baby carrier when she first started exploring the Alaska Range. Growing up in Fairbanks, it was the closest access point to the high alpine country.
Her parents taught her to ski early. She became part of a vibrant racing community that practically lived at the local ski hill. While she has skied all around the world, the eastern Alaska Range holds a special place in her heart.
“I love the geology,” Klara says. “I love the rivers. It’s where I learned how to be outside.”
Leighan also grew up admiring the mountains biting into the Fairbanks horizon. When she was 10 years old, driving into town with her mom for a summer fun run, she pledged to climb Denali one day.
“It wasn’t about conquering it or getting to the summit,” Leighan says. “I just wanted to see Alaska, and Denali seemed like the greatest vantage point.”
About a decade later, she accomplished that goal and was rewarded with a view that exceeded her childhood dreams.
“When there is a cloud deck below you, you’re standing on top of this island in the sky, this beautiful sunlit island,” she says. “It’s amazing.”
Leighan’s paintings echo that sense of awe. They have been featured in galleries and coffee shops around Anchorage, at national film festivals and on the can of Denali Brewing’s Hazy IPA.
An Expression of Their Souls
For these women, art is a way to challenge themselves: physically, by going deeper into the places they love, and intellectually, by expressing why they love them.
Klara says painting a mountain is a lot like skiing on it.
“It’s a way to interact with the landscape, to feel it out, to get to know it on an intimate level,” she says. “When you’re flying down the hill on skis, you have to understand what all the undulations mean and choose your line through it. It’s very similar to the experience of making art outside. I’m just using my eyes instead of my body.”
Leighan sees this in her friend’s work.
“Klara just has this beautiful channeling of what’s actually happening in her soul,” Leighan says. “You can feel the rain that’s falling, tell whether she’s cold or not, comfortable or not.”
Leighan’s paintings hedge closer to realism—something she blames in part on her profession.
She says aviation trains her to suppress her more impulsive instincts—the same ones needed to create great art.
“I can reproduce what’s in front of me and add a little bit of soul to it, but it doesn’t have the same kind of freewheeling creativity as when I was younger,” Leighan says.
Wrestling With Environmental Changes
Right off the Richardson Highway, three hours south of Fairbanks, the Gulkana Glacier is easily visible from the road. While scientists have been monitoring its retreat since the 1960s, it doesn’t take a glaciologist to tell it is melting away.
When Klara went there as a child in the 1990s, the glacier filled the valley. Looking up, there was a speck of rock in the middle, surrounded by ice on either side.
Today, that speck has become a huge outcropping of rock as the ice around it has vanished, draining down the creek during Alaska’s increasingly warm summers, along with billions of additional tons of Alaska’s glacier ice.
It’s a subject Klara wants to confront in her art, partly by returning to the same spot in future years to document its change.
“These remote places are actually very interconnected with the choices we’re making in town,” she says. “I hope my art can be a voice for these places that not a lot of people get to see and experience.”
Leighan wrestles with the same thing every day from her cockpit.
She knows her plane burns 50 gallons of jet fuel an hour—no small contributor to climate change. Yet when she flies passengers through the Alaska Range, weaving in and out of peaks and swooping over ancient ice fields, it changes them.
“People are moved to tears on a daily basis,” Leighan says.
She hopes her art can do the same to those who view it.
“With my paintings, I try to take them there so they can see the profound beauty that is the Alaska Range and maybe care about it a little more and want to protect it a little more,” she says.