Artist Profile

Brenda Schwartz-Yeager

Artist Profile Story by Amy Newman

When marine artist Brenda Schwartz-Yeager first put paint to canvas, it wasn’t to scratch a creative itch. The Wrangell native, who has worked commercial fishing vessels her entire life, was simply looking to stay busy during her downtime.

“Back in the day there wasn’t a lot to do on commercial boats,” she says with a laugh. “One of the ways I entertained myself was I drew or painted anything I saw to pass the time.”

Those paintings reflect Brenda’s life living and working along Southeast Alaska’s coast for more than 35 years, and offer a snapshot of the waters she loves – fishing vessels punctuating a foggy bay, a lone man bending nets on the shore, or children fishing off the dock.

“I’m really interested and constantly intrigued artistically by Alaska coastal lifestyles – people living, playing and working on the coastline,” she says. “They’re one of my favorite things to capture.”

Brenda’s early paintings were done in oils, but she soon found herself drawn to watercolors, for both practical and artistic reasons. The watercolors dried faster, allowing her to quickly pack them away when work beckoned, but they also add a vibrancy that better captures the coastal colors that inspire her.

“Alaska is filled with beautiful places and interesting things, and I always like to paint that,” she says. “It’s like a feeling of wanting to save it in some ways, and capturing it in watercolor is my way of celebrating it.”

Brenda begins each painting on site, whether sketching a scene on paper to complete later, or putting paint to canvas right away. It’s rare that she paints something not directly in front of her, an element of her work that she feels gives it added authenticity.

“It’s kind of the real deal, done by somebody who’s out there working on the coast,” she says.

Living and working in Southeast – she captains a longliner and occasionally operates a tour boat – Brenda never lacks for inspiration. But her onsite method of painting does pose some unique challenges.

“The coast of Alaska is a busy, dynamic thing, so you don’t really have very long before the lighting changes, or the boat starts its motor and leaves,” she says. She once shouted at a boat captain, asking if he could pull back into the harbor so she could finish sketching his boat. Surprisingly, he did, she says with a laugh.

While Brenda’s personal relationship with her subjects make her paintings unique, it’s her use of nautical charts as canvases that truly sets her work apart. But it happened entirely by chance.

“It’s kind of the bar napkin theory,” she says. Cruising through Prince William Sound with friends and out of paper, she began to sketch a scene on the back of an old chart; her friends convinced her to incorporate the scene on the front. The result was “crude and kind of monochromatic compared to what I do now,” she says, but it served as the inspiration for what’s become her signature style.

Whether the image begins as a sketch on paper or directly on the chart, the two are always related.

“If I’m painting on the chart, I’m painting on a spot specific in that geographical region,” Brenda says. “It’s like taking this artistic scene that I’m painting and weaving it into the artistic scene of the chart.”

Brenda says her work evokes memories of special times in her life, or places that she’s visited and hopes to return to, and showcases the beauty of the state she’s privileged to see every day.

“I hope when people buy my art it reminds them of how fortunate we are to live and work here,” she says.