Claire Fejes was a Brooklyn girl reborn into an artist after a fateful move to Fairbanks in 1946. Cold, Starry Night tells the story of her talent ignited.
I was happy to see a large bookstore almost immediately after we arrived in Anchorage. I needed something to read. I like to visit bookstores wherever we are, because there is always treasure. (Earlier this summer, the treasure was a photograph of my father.)
I wanted to immerse myself in a book that would ground me in The Last Frontier. I wasn’t sure if I should look for a book about settlers, miners or Natives. I paged through several wonderful photo archives in sepia tones. But then I decided I should read about the women, just because Alaska was, and in so many ways seems still to be, a man’s world.
There weren’t many books written by or about women from which to choose, but one book seemed to choose me. Cold Starry Night, by Claire Fejes. I didn’t give it much thought, purchased it rather quickly, and we went on with our day.
Late that evening, I began with Claire. In 1946, she left what she knew in Brooklyn and traveled beyond her imagination to a forbidding and harsh environment. Yet, almost immediately there is lyric in her prose about what she found, whom she met, how it affected her art and ultimately, why it all matters.
Everyone who came North began afresh, with a new slate. . . we decided we would create our own traditions. . . “It’s what you are now that really counts.”. . .Our needs were small, we did not feel poor at all. . . My whole being slowed like a steady, contented beat.
Claire’s first winter was one of the coldest ever in Fairbanks. A friend of ours has a cousin in Anchorage who moved to Fairbanks. We were amused to hear that he moved right back after his first winter. “Too cold!” The combination of pervasive darkness and deathly cold often results in self-isolation. “…against darkness we had nothing but our will and the inner light we possessed.”
We learn from Claire how shocking these compound elements are, and how much we depend on warmth and light. Claire tells of her family, her friends, and a varied cast of characters inhabiting Fairbanks. There are charming anecdotes of sourdoughs and settlers, mythic in some proportions. There are tragedies and comedies bound together by survival in a harsh, yet magical environment. From all this comes her portrait of post-war frontier.
More vivid is the story of how Claire is reborn in Alaska, out of its darkness, from what she first perceives as a netherworld. Her talent is kindled and bravely ignites into a persistent flame. She has no kin in Fairbanks with her artistry. Only years later comes a blaze of creativity, a frenzy of painting unleashed by time within the Arctic. Her inspiration emerges renewed among those whom she describes as “a loving community of souls.”
Claire’s words point to a creative process shrouded in layers: I had to cut away all ways of creating that were not my own. The painting had to rise, as it were, out of its own burnt ashes… Being seen and accepted as an individual was a powerful experience, given the times in which she made her journey. The North was a place even more remote than Fairbanks had seemed. Yet she discovers universality with the Native people, and brings forth the elements within us all in her art.
Cold Starry Night‘s jacket notes refer to this as a memoir written from the heart. There is warm and comforting heart to the story, to be sure. More so, there is guts. This is a story that contains the sweet moments in life, yet those moments are wrapped as they really are, with the raw and visceral. There is the warm and golden, and there is the bleak and darkening. There is the comfort of friends and family, and there is the danger beyond the door. There is the intensity of beauty that hurts, and there is the toughness of spirit that keeps moving.
The Yup’ik Eskimo song called “Listening to the Stone” sings of small adventures. Claire uses it to reference her journey to a definition of purpose:
And I think over again
my small adventures
when with a shore wind
I drifted out in my kayak
and thought I was in danger.
those small ones
that I thought so big
for all the vital things
I had to get and to reach.
And yet, there is only one great thing,
the only thing:
to live to see
in hunts and on journeys
the great day that dawns
and the light that fills the world.
This is, then, the main thing: the light that bursts forth and fills the world. Claire, with stunning simplicity of word and image, weaves this ribbon of awareness through the ordinary. From this consciousness — this light, the extraordinary can be born.
The forward in Cold Starry Night refers to the sacrifice Claire made to come to Fairbanks. Yet, had she not, would her light-filled art have burst forth in such great glory? She provides the answer: …I emerged with a new persona, a creative rebirth, to find my own voice. All the banked fires within me had burst into flame, and I painted surely, without retracting a single stroke.
We all wander the wilderness. Some of us wander only in our thoughts. Some of us wander away from our familiars to new places. Still others go miles into the deep, far from any road. What we bring forth from these wilds of nature and spirit determines who we are.
We can begin again, afresh with a new slate, create our own traditions, cut away the ways that are not our own. We will let our fears go, and slow to the contented, steady beat. We have the chance to learn what we are meant to be. If we absolve our fear, then a great day will dawn and the light will fill the world. And so, we can be reborn and redefined in purpose.
This will always be no small adventure.
I finish Cold Starry Night as we descend from the Parks Highway into Fairbanks and tuck it into my purse. We drive toward the river and what we think might be the older part of town. I look up from the map to see The Alaska House and we climb the steps inside. “Have some blueberry tea!” calls out the friendly proprietor, and “Hey! great book you’ve got there!” “I just finished it,” I say, “and we don’t know how, but we were going right past, so we have to see the paintings of Claire Fejes.” “They’re right this way,” she says.
After drinking in the colors of the paintings, I select a card with a Native mother’s image because she is with two children, and there is water and a mountain beyond. While our purchases are wrapped, I mention to the same woman how meaningful I found the book and she responds. It is then that I realize I am speaking with Yolande, the daughter of Claire Fejes. “Wait here,” she commands. “I want to give you a gift.” She sweeps back into the room and presents me with two more images. I look into her smiling face and our eyes fill with tears.
“I wish we had more time,” I fumble. “There will be,” says Yolande, “because you will return. In the meantime, remember your adventure with these.”