Artist Profile

Dot Bardarson

Story by Amy Newman

Dot Bardarson was a “proper East Coast girl” when she arrived in Juneau in 1954, fresh off her honeymoon and ready to join her husband Linne as a deckhand on his cannery tender, the Estella. With an Associate of Arts degree in commercial art from Lasell College in Boston, and a freshly minted fine arts degree from the University of Washington, nothing in Dot’s upbringing had prepared her for a life of flinging fish.

“My husband took one look at me and said, ‘I think I made a big mistake,’ ” she says with a laugh, remembering how she walked off the plane wearing a dress. “But once I stepped aboard, I never looked back. I don’t know if that was what I was meant to do, but that sure was what I loved.”

Dot loved sketching and painting with watercolors even more. Growing up in Maryland, she spent her days sketching the costumes she saw on the movie screen and the sexy, 1940s calendar pin-ups known as Varga girls. Being an artist was part choice, part destiny, she says.

“My dad was an engineer, but he was also a very good, accurate artist,” she says. “My mother was a crafts person, and my aunt was an artist. So, there were some genes there.”

When Dot’s father, a military man, was transferred to Seattle, he persuaded her to join him by promising to send her to the University of Washington. She left a boyfriend behind in Boston but says she “never looked back,” especially after meeting Linne on a blind date.

Days on the tender were long and the work was hard, but Dot’s desire to sketch and paint remained.

“You know, you can’t take art away from the artist,” she says. “It’s just in there and it wants to burst out. Every once in a while, there’d be a day off and out would come my art supplies.”

She became fascinated with old buildings – an interest sparked by her work on the tender and the time the family, which had grown to include three children, spent living in old canneries in Southeast Alaska, Prince William Sound, and Unalaska. When the family settled in Seward in 1970 Dot didn’t have a studio, so she would head out with a tent and some art supplies to paint on location. She’d return seven to 10 days later with a portfolio full of watercolors, usually old buildings. It was during this time that she began to move away from the realism that had defined her early work.

“I said to myself, ‘There must be something more to art than just painting what you see,’” she says of her slow evolution. “So, for a while there I was experimenting and trying to come up with a style of my own.”

She dabbled in abstracts and what she called her “white line series” before opening Bardarson Studio in 1986. It was the influence of the dozens of Alaskan artists she represented that finally helped her solidify her style – colorful, representative, imaginative depictions of Alaska’s landscape, wildlife, and Native symbols that go beyond what’s on the canvas.

“I like to tell a story with my art, so you’ll see that sometimes the shapes are trying to break out of the margins,” she says. “There’s more to the art than what you might see at first. The story evolves.”

Dot is 86 years old now and sold the studio years ago. She’s constantly toying with the idea of retirement. Going out now would end her career on the highest of high – on top of her long list of accolades, she received the Governor’s Arts and Humanities’ Lifetime Achievement Award in the Arts earlier this year. But the thought of packing away her paints and brushes poses something of a conundrum she hasn’t yet figured out how to solve.

“I would still paint, that’s the problem,” she says with a laugh, describing how she’d spend her days as a retiree. “I’ll be doing this until the day I die.”