…when is a cut-paper sculpture not a cut-paper sculpture?

 That’s a question I answered during the spring of 1989 while teaching an introductory illustration course at Kenai Peninsula College (KPC) in Soldotna, Alaska. One of the last assignments I had the class do illustrate an historical event using cut-paper sculpture. I had fully intended on working alongside the class members  and illustrating a cathaphract (armored horseman) from the Romano-British period  of the 5th century but got stalled on the concept and finished it off in my regular airbrush/paint/pencil illustration technique.

 This painting is the result. It measures 9″X12″ and was rendered on illustration board, I still wince a little when I see it – I had this great idea about using plastic window screen mesh for the chain mail but it would be another fifteen years before my cut-paper skills would be up to the task.

1999: Red State / Blue State / White State

The call came the spring of 1999, shortly before the second of our three trips from Knoxville back to the Kenai Peninsula.   The ravages of Parkinson’s disease made difficult for Dad to make himself understood on the phone, but there was no mistaking the message of his call:

 “Son, I miss you and I don’t have much time left. What would it take to move you home?”

I was stunned speechless. My father was thrifty to a fault and had turned me down once before when I had asked for help getting home right after I finished grad school, but that wasn’t the sole reason for my discomfort. I wasn’t sure if we could make the move back – and It was the first time that Alaska hadn’t immediately trumped every other card in my hand. The truth was we’d invested a lot time and energy to “bloom where we were planted” in East Tennessee.1 Plans were in place to get the boys through their missions, we were finally winding up Meghan’s adoption process and my part-time teaching gig showed signs of becoming a fulltime job. A 4000-mile move was not the simple decision it was when our family was much younger. It would need substantial planning, but fortunately the vacation back home that we’d already planned for the summer would allow us to gather information we’d need for such a move.

We came back from the trip feeling positive about moving but during our first church meeting back I was abruptly pulled aside by a friend whose family was undergoing some rough times. She hissed: “You’re leaving, aren’t you? You’re going home? YOU CAN’T DO THIS TO ME! You can’t leave now. I need you! My whole family needs you! Our whole world is falling apart and you’re the only people I can depend on!”

 …which put the needle on my awkward-o-meter well into the red caution zone.  I knew from personal knowledge that she wasn’t exaggerating – if anything she was down-playing her domestic situation and unfortunately, I was still at a point in life where I thought I was Batman and could save anyone. She was so distraught that I mumbled something vague about postponing the move and for the time being we went back to the exquisite hell that is life for a Yankee in the Southern Appalachians.

…but then the real problem was that we weren’t Yankees – or Southerners. Living on the northern arc of the Pacific Rim took us neatly out of north vs. south // urban vs. rural // mountain vs. flatland // red state vs. blue state rivalries. However, to be brutally honest I couldn’t care (bleeping) less whether I was in a red, a blue or a purple state.  The only state color I ever cared about was the white state – Alaska.

Alaskans are different – and when I refer to Alaskans I’m not talking about snowbirds who try the Great North on as an experiment then run back to Oregon or Ohio when they find out life is hard on a frontier. I am referring to a person whose feelings for the last Frontier cannot be indexed against the size of this year’s PFD pay-out.  Someone whose emotional bond with the state is more a matter of citizenship rather than residency.2

It’s said that you can take the boy out of Alaska, but you can’t take Alaska out of the boy. If you talk to anyone that knows me well you’ll find that I have never completely left – and for the first twenty years of our marriage that was literally the case as education, military and ecclesiastical service prompted moves back and forth between the Last Frontier and the Lower 48. Every plan and/or decision in my life included the end goal of returning to Alaska – we’d never have left Alaska in 1989 if my job situation with Kenai Peninsula College hadn’t been changed by university politics.

By the same token an extended stay in Knoxville after graduate school was never part of my plan – it would be more accurate to say that we were marooned in East Tennessee by a combination of unforeseen setbacks. In the last forty-five years I’ve moved 22 times and lived in 16 different states but at heart I am still an Alaskan boy with an Alaskan license plate on the front of my car.

The funny thing is that I didn’t really think of myself as an Alaskan until I left for college in 1971. Since moving north in 1962 I’d thought of myself as a transplanted Californian – I kept up regular correspondence with my cousins and seemed to make friends easier with other transplanted kids who had been hauled north by parents either serving out at Wildwood Air Force Station or working as petrochemical managers and engineers getting the new North Road refineries running smoothly.

Sometime during the winter of 1970-71 that mind-set began to change – and like most major changes in my life it was brought about by a very minor incident, in this case a story I heard while serving as a teacher’s aide in gym class. While sorting and folding towels Marie (my counterpart from the girl’s class) told me a story she’d heard in her Alaskan history class about a native witch that lived in the area many years ago.  This witch never seemed to age until the day she accidentally left her tribal lands –  her hair immediately began to streak with grey, wrinkles creased the skin of her face and the joints in her arms and legs became stiff and painful. It was all very terrifying until she stumbled back over onto home turf and the effects reversed just as quickly. The story became a predictable series of mishaps involving the witch (or her victims) inadvertently crossing the line.

Of course, I had to turn it into another of my very predictable running jokes, so from then on, I would always call for a shoe check whenever Marie would come into the room, the idea being that she was somehow a descendant of the witch and was able to retain her youth by hiding a small bit of dirt in her shoe that would allow her to still be technically “walking on tribal land”. At the same time though the witch story did more than just supply material for my sense of humor – it also generated in me an awareness that there could be something intangible linking me with the Great Land that surpassed all other relationships.

Maybe that’s why I was so careful unpacking my carryon bag when we got back to Knoxville after that trip in the summer of 1999. I didn’t bring back dirt for my shoes, but I did have a couple of small, smooth pebbles from the north pasture on the homestead where I had always wanted to build a home after moving back. As time goes by the chances of getting home keep getting slimmer and slimmer but I refuse to give up hope and until then those two pebbles will serve as a link.

I’d like to say karma rewarded our sacrifice for staying put to help our friends but unfortunately that was not the case:

  • Martin Landau never made it to the moon by September 13th and in the process tipped the entire Space:1999 continuity over into the ashbin of cancelled TV series.
  • The move back home kept getting postponed  and the next time I saw my Dad he was in his casket at his funeral four years later.
  • Shortly after this story the friend that so desperately needed us to stay in Knoxville informed us that since her “family was doing fine she didn’t need us as friends anymore.”

It was tough dealing with that statement /snub because I had yet to learn to stop crossing oceans to help those couldn’t be bothered to step over a puddle in return. Fortunately, there was something else that helped me move on, an aspect of my life and identity remains the same: Even though our subsequent move to Clarksville kept us in the Volunteer state I cannot refer to myself as a Tennessean, I cannot sing the entire Alaskan Flag song without breaking into tears and the sun always appears too bright and too high in the sky

Regardless of my physical location I am and will always be an Alaskan boy.3



  1. In his epic poem “Cremation of Sam McGee”, Robert Service states that Sam’s home town was Plum Tree, Tennessee. When planting trees in our yard in Knoxville I made sure the first one put in was a plum tree.


  1. I’ve spent my life performing residency calculus – totaling up years, months, days – even hours and minutes that I’ve spent physically existing within the state’s borders. For years I was obsessed with keeping my “Alaskan citizenship”: From 1971 to 1989 I bounced back and forth like a tennis ball between the Last Frontier and various locations in the Lower 48, and for most of that time I was able to keep my Alaskan driver’s license with its wonderfully low number.


  1. See blogpost, “The Alaskan Diaspora”.

1993: “I Meant to Do That”

Christmas Break 1997

I had started to doze off while rereading Larry Niven’s Protector when the phone rang.

The caller started speaking rapidly: ““Hey Mr. Deitrick – this is Denny” Before I could respond he continued: “Yeah, since it was Christmas and all that I thought I’d give you a call and see how you were doing. You were always my favorite teacher and PLEASE HELP ME FIND A JOB! IF I DON’T START BRINGING SOME MONEY INTO THE HOUSE MY MOM IS GOING TO KICK ME OUT!

It was at that point that I remembered my caller as a former student from Lincoln Memorial University.

Fall 1993

I doubt I’d have gone to graduate school if I hadn’t been pushed into it.  When the state of Alaska placed all the community colleges under the university system in 1989 it meant that in order to continue teaching I needed a terminal degree , which in my case would be an MFA. However, returning to teach at KPC wasn’t the sole factor inducing me to borrow obscene amounts of money; according to the media,  colleges all over the nation were anticipating a record level of retirement in their liberal arts faculties. If KPC didn’t work out I should have the pick of any number of schools where I could dispense my aesthetic wisdom.

It wasn’t the first time in my life that a beautiful theory was shot down by a cold hard fact.  The recession of 1992 hit universities as hard as anyone else which meant A) there were fewer retirements than anticipated and B) many schools elected not to refill vacancies created by those who did retire. Each advertised position would now attract more than 100 applications and I managed to strike out with every application I made.

I lost no time in launching an ambitious program of promotions and portfolio showings to build the freelance work that had dwindled during graduate school, but I found that the market had changed, and my highly identifiable style was not as popular as it had been just a few years earlier. I had also unfortunately taken an extended leave of absence from my reserve unit so even that modest income was no longer coming in…all of which meant my family and I were stuck 4000 miles away from home with a mortgage, a sizeable school debt and very few prospects.

As I was contemplating this dire set of circumstances one day, I received  an unexpected phone call concerning an instructor’s position at Lincoln Memorial University located near historic Cumberland Gap northeast of Knoxville.  Their nascent design program was foundering, and they needed a good teacher to keep them going – and I was thought to be the ideal candidate.

I gave the matter deep consideration – and after fifteen seconds I agreed to take the job and made plans to visit the school two days later. I would need those two days just to find the school –  the location of the school and background information  were  not easy to find in those pre-Internet days but I was able to dig up just enough to get me to the school and talk in a fairly informed manner about the situation.

The trip to the school took longer than planned as I adjusted to the up-and-down nature of the route –  terrain in East Tennessee strongly resembles corduroy fabric and I had to cross ridge after ridge on my way to the school. I was met on arrival by the head of the art department, which was very impressive until I found out that the entire department consisted of just two teachers. It was then that I learned I would basically be the entire graphic design program which had been languishing since the original founder/teacher left the previous summer.

Hard work had never bothered me but within a few weeks it became clear that the program needed more than just industry. The department lacked proper computer support, and it soon became clear that the school was hoping that I would somehow be able to obtain (without cost to them) the necessary software –  the kind of situation that brought to mind the character of Wimpy in the old Popeye cartoons when he’d tell Olive Oyl: “Come on over for a duck dinner. Please bring the duck”.

Once I made it clear that I wasn’t buying any programs, I found that the situation was a good introduction to teaching college and that I was learning as much as the students. Old habits die hard; as a former intelligence officer I was prone to look for patterns in groups of people and I soon discovered trends in the way classes would organize themselves, trends that would repeat themselves in every class I would teach over the next twenty-five years.

  • Every semester the same type of student sat in same place in each classroom – for example the smartest student (but not always with the highest GPA) always sat two seats from the rear of the row along the left wall while the student with the highest GPA always sat two seats from the front row of seats along the right wall.
  • Students used the same excuses no matter the subject, composition or geographic location of the class.
  • Class composition in terms of talent was consistently the same as well – 10% of the classes were extremely talented go-getters, 10% were totally hopeless and completely devoid of talent while the remaining students seemed to be just milling about marking time.
  • Each class had one poseur who been very successful in high school and was now coasting on a few selected techniques and types of subject matter, never progressing beyond those sure hits.

Denny was the poseur in this class; he had a half-dozen programmed images and no matter what assignment I gave he would turn in a hillbilly portrait, a totally bitching burning skull or one of his other canned compositions. Critiques had little effect as every comment I made was met with “I meant to do that”.  At any other time or place I would have flunked him but third world tuberculosis babies were healthier than the LMU design program and I had already been informed that students were avoiding my classes because I had the audacity to expect good work for good grades. The best I could do was try to keep  all the students moving in the same general direction…

…so it was no surprise that I jumped ship two years later when a position opened up at another college where I was free to terrorize my students into doing their best. Four years later I’d assumed I’d made a clean break with my Cumberland Gap students but now I had a very panicked Denny on the phone and as much as I wanted to just say “TOLD YA SO!” and hang up, the teacher side of me kicked in and I started brainstorming with him for solutions.

It turned out that he had taken the same “pose” in all his classes and managed to graduate without the skills necessary to enter either the work force or graduate school. Fortunately he was able to enroll in remedial design classes at another university and learn enough to start doing basic layout for a local shopper’s guide. At that point I withdrew, feeling very smug about the way I had wisely handled a common problem in design classes and education in general – the student who is sure they already know it all.

Then three nights later I woke from a sound sleep, sat straight up out of bed and realized that I really wasn’t so different from my former student. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the business – it’s stressful showing your portfolio to prospective clients. Most of the time you get nods and very general but nice comments but now and then you’ll get someone who digs in and critiques – like the New York City editor  that had recently looked at my work and suggested I take some additional figure drawing classes. I smiled, said “Thank You” and walked out muttering under my breath about “15 years freelancing, five years teaching and a Master of Fine Arts degree!”

I’d been just as bad as Denny had been.

It took me a while to set things up, but eventually I went into what Lori called my “self-administered MFA in figure drawing”. I started drawing figures from life, reference photos and occasionally from another artists’ work. No matter how hard I was working or how busy I was I would always draw five figures a week.

Then one day after several years of all this extra work I looked down at my drawing board and realized that I had become a much better draftsman when it came to anatomy – but at the same time I realized that all that extra work wasn’t just about improving the figures I drew. It made me a better teacher as well and gave me a better grasp of what’s going on in the mind of each new Denny that I encounter.

…and I can also tell them with conviction that the extra effort will definitely pay off in the end.

Sea Turtle


It took me a moment to do the math.

The other day a student asked me it there had been one single person, place, thing or critter that I had drawn more than any other and it took me a little time to figure it out. Thirty years ago I would have had a very quick answer – soldiers, starships or giant fighting robots – but now things are a little different. I actually do more drawing for demonstrations in class than at my drawing board for money.

…and more often than not I’ll draw a sea turtle, putting it  to double duty as I first draw the image then ink it with brush or pen. I think I did my first sea-turtle demonstration for my very first illustration class during the Spring 1989 semester at Kenai Peninsula College and it’s become a tradition for me over the years since then.

This particular sea turtle will be part of my collection at jimmo.shirts this Christmas.