Halcyon Daze of the ‘Borg: A Photographic Memoir by Ray Troll
The small town of Lindsborg, Kansas is known as ‘Little Sweden USA’. It’s also the home of Bethany College where I went to art school and earned a Bachelor’s degree in 1977. After earning my MFA at Washington State University I returned there to teach from 1982 to 83.While living there I took many a ‘formal’ portrait of my fellow students, professors, working artists and town characters. In 2021 I exhibited this collection of photos at Lester Raymer’s Red Barn Studio and Museum and the Sandzen Memorial Gallery. It’s a truly unique glimpse into the art revolution that took place in this prairie college town.
Lindsborg’s Seventies art scene left an indelible mark on my life. These images, hopefully, convey the spirit and flavor of that unique time in a very small town in Kansas.
I moved to Lindsborg in January of 1974, to study art at Bethany College, a small Lutheran liberal arts school nestled between the expansive wheat fields of eastern Kansas and the winding banks of the Smoky Hill River. I had heard good things about the town, the college, and the art department. I was nineteen at the time, cocky, a bit arrogant and naively self-assured in my artistic abilities. I’d been raised in a family of six and was desperate to get out on my own and to make some sort of mark in the world.
I was eager to leave the big city of Wichita behind me, too, having spent a frustrating, unfulfilling semester at Wichita State University, unnoticed and lost in the crowd. I wanted to explore the creative life at a smaller school where I could make genuine connections with my professors and fellow students.
I bought a 35 mm camera and immersed myself in the world of photography, a form of artistic interpretation and creativity that resonated deeply with me at the time. There was a small darkroom in the art department that soon became my second home. I loved capturing moments from the world around me and seeing them magically reappear in the Dektol developer under the red light of the darkroom, thick with the acrid smell of the stop-bath and fixative. I was awestruck seeing images appear in the plastic trays as I rocked the chemicals back and forth.
I liked the idea of taking formal portraits, of trying to capture the essence of a person in my lens, sometimes with a touch of theatricality. I’d direct my subjects with minimal instructions, most often with a request to simply “go blank” and not to smile at the camera, to simply look at me. Smiles were too easy, too posed. I wanted something deeper, a connection of some sort. Maximize the mystery.
Was there something there in their expressions that revealed their inner thoughts, a flicker of emotion or bemusement? Were they tense, at ease, smirking just a bit, happy in the moment, or trying to figure out who I was and why I was pointing a camera at them?
Taking a breath, I pointed the camera.
It’s a vulnerable moment, preparing oneself to be studied, looked at closely. Our gazes met, the subjects judging me as well, assessing me and the awkward situation.
The visual conversation between the model and the artist is captured as the shutter snaps. We’ve been taught that to stare is rude and intrusive. A photograph though, allows you to linger and study the lines of a face, to stare into a stranger’s eyes, observe the curve of a nose, the slouching posture, the open shirt, the unkempt hair, all there in that one frozen moment of openness.
My subjects were all friends to some degree or other. Some were merely acquaintances, or people I admired or wanted to know better, a couple were much, much closer than that. Some were role models for me, artists making their way and I wanted to glean the secrets of their survival in the creative world. All of them affected my life, in the sense that we are all “who we meet.” Some became lifelong friends.
I don’t pretend to think I captured all the important artistic figures in town, far from it. These photos represent my small corner of that bygone scene. I regret that I never “formally” photographed Steve Scott, Bob Bosco, John Murphy, Lee Becker, Rip Carlson, Randy Just, Richard Klocke, Kim McLelland, Cindy Schott and so many more that were also important people to me.
My recollection of that era and my attraction to photography took on even more import when I realized that many of the people in this series of images are dead. As we age and lose people around us, facing our own mortality, I think of the adage that the closer you are to becoming history yourself, the more you appreciate history. I felt the urgency to share this body of work to commemorate their memories. I also want to acknowledge how much my time in Kansas transformed my own artistic DNA and the roots of my artistic style.
Something special happened in little Lindsborg back in the Seventies and early Eighties. Then, there were over a hundred studio art majors at Bethany College and four to five full time faculty. Now there are only a handful of studio art majors and two full time faculty. The diminishing numbers say one thing, about the world getting to be a tougher place and turning more toward “practical things” but there’s more to it than that. Maybe it was the cultural residue of the Sixties lingering in the air, but the excitement of creativity was palpable in that town, in the streets, in the bars, in the raucous parties in the “slums” above Main Street, the “keggers” down by the river and “re-has” out in the country.
The artistic tension was there for sure, inspiration drawn from one another, feeding off each other like artistic cannibals. Subtle rivalries played out over the years with attempts to outdo one’s peers, just enough to inspire them to fire right back with something bigger and bolder and maybe just a bit more outrageous.
I feel lucky that I knew this rich cast of characters who swam through my life like some half-forgotten dream now. Townies and gownies, all making beautiful things, lost in the countless paint strokes, cranking out prints, throwing pots, making jewelry, the young and the old alike, making music, partying, skinny dipping, making love in dark rooms, smoking pot in the back alleys and drinking Coors nonstop, like it was the water of life. Goddamn it was fun.
It’s easy to sound like a generational narcissist, extolling the vaulted and overly inflated reputation of the Sixties and Seventies crowd. I think the artistic fires that sometimes ignite in small towns are bound to burn out… for a time. They come and go, subsiding and coming back in waves.
The Swedish landscape painter Birger Sandzen lit a creative fuse in Lindsborg in the early 1900’s. Lester Raymer fed off that heat in the Fifties and Sixties and left his legacy to the town. Mike Hartung’s powerful body of work has only recently exploded into sight and I trust that its impact will be felt for decades to come. All of that artwork can still be found in Lindsborg, in public and private collections, and out on the streets.
The art endures.
Dig this: Art and science collide in new Ray Troll exhibition
Ray Troll and friends’ work comes to Alaska State Museum
Juneau Empire, May 4, 2019 by Ben Hohenstatt
Ray Troll is a paleo hipster.
The Ketchikan artist many in Southeast Alaska know for his fish pun T-shirt designs liked the Earth before it was cool and is keenly interested in underground rocks.
“I’ve been a paleo nerd for my entire life,” Troll said in an interview with the Capital City Weekly. “I never gave up loving dinosaurs. Everything prehistoric. For me it’s kind of a mission to get people turned on to a prehistoric past. I think it’s really important for people to know the history of the Earth.”
Troll is willing to go to the mats for lesser-known prehistoric creatures, such as the Tully monster — a confusing ancient aquatic animal that defies easy classification — and desmostylians — a line of marine mammals that went extinct. Desmostylians’ range included Alaska, and the animals are thought to have resembled a hippo-walrus hybrid.
“We call them desmos for short,” Troll said.“Only the connoisseurs of paleo nerdom know about them. Some of them were the size of elephants.”
Troll’s interest in paleontology goes as far back as he can remember. He said his earliest artistic memory is drawing a dinosaur with a crayon at age 4. “I’m 65 years old, and I’m still drawing dinosaurs,” Troll said.
That lifelong fascination helped lead to a 26-year-and-counting friendship with paleontologist Kirk Johnson, now director of the Smithsonian National Museum of National History, and an expansive fossil-hunting road trips along North America’s coast.
That 10,000-mile, 250-day trip led to “Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline,” a traveling exhibition organized by the Anchorage Museum that will be in Juneau at the Alaska State Museum through Oct. 19, and a book of the same title.
“This is the second book with Kirk,” Troll said. “We’ve probably driven around the Earth together. We’ve done trips to the Amazon and all over the west. He shared a lot of his knowledge with me and vice versa.”
Troll is an artist with evident exuberance for ancient plants and animals, and Johnson is a scientist who was once an art major.“He’s the scientist I always wanted to be, and I’m the artist he wanted to be,” Troll said. “It’s a melding of two disciplines.”
The cross-pollination of science and art is evident in the pieces in the “Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline.” During a docent tour previewing the exhibition, Troll was able to point out era-appropriate plants in his work and explain the anatomy of the long-dead creatures the pieces depict. Troll said the exhibition has been tailored for its Juneau audience and most of the pieces on display are related to animals that millions of years ago thrived in Alaska.
“This represents about 10 years worth of work, and there are about 60 pieces of art in the exhibit,” Troll said. ” Thirty of them being original framed pieces and the other 30 being digital outputs. “Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline” also features some works not made by Troll, including a pachyrhinosaurus statue made by Gary Staab that depicts the triceratops-like dinosaur bursting through the museum wall that seems destined to be a selfie backdrop.
The exhibition also included a handful of fossils, including bones from ichthyosaurs — an enormous marine reptile that swam the waters of Southeast Alaska. “They were the size of dinosaurs, but they were in the water,” Troll said. “We’ll show some massive ribs and some vertebrae from those. I think it will blow some minds that we had these right in Southeast Alaska.”
The collection also includes what Troll considers the pinnacle of his fossil-hunting exploits: the tooth of a Nanuqasaurus. Nanuqasauruses were a tyrannosaur that lived around the North Slope, and Troll found a tooth from one of the carnivores on the banks of the Colville River.
“It was a big moment for me,” Troll said. “When I found it, I cried.”
Know & Go
What: “Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline.”
Where: Alaska State Museum, 395 Whittier St.
When: The exhibition will be up through Oct. 19. Summer hours are 9-5 p.m. daily and begin May 6.
Admission: Admission is $12 for adults, $11 for seniors and free for those 18 and younger.
Here are some photos of two recent collaborative art projects from the summer of 2010. I worked with my pal sculptor Gary Staab to design, cast and install a school of insanely detailed bronze Alaskan fish swimming into the UAF building at Lena Point in Juneau, Alaska. This was a one percent for art project via the State of Alaska.
Check out photos of the piece we’ve titled “Into the Flow”
A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to win one of the contracts to create public artwork for the all-new William Jack Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery in Anchorage. I worked with the crew at Trijet Manufacturing in Palmer Alaska to produce large cutout powder coated salmon and fishermen to adorn the building.
Jay Marvin and crew did all the installation work this last winter and now it’s finally completed. Check ‘em out next time you’re in the area.
Here’s my Artist Statement about the pieces:
I’m an artist that is inspired by the natural world and our place in it. Few places on our planet are better than Alaska for experiencing the raw elements of humankind meeting and experiencing nature firsthand in all its overwhelming beauty, sheer excitement and plain outright terror.
Catching a large fighting fish like an Alaskan King Salmon can be a life altering experience, especially for an artist. I know that I will never forget the first time I caught such a magnificent creature and ran through an entire gamut of emotions as I reeled it in: exuberant joy, pride, awe, moments of fear, moments of goofy comedy, moments of remorse and guilt as a I watched this ocean-going animal spirit die, moments of savory gluttony when I ate it. It’s all there in those riveting minutes when we are lucky enough to catch a big fish.
I also like to incorporate elements of humor in my work because it’s simply the goofy guy that I am. Humor can be a more direct and accessible way of communicating with an audience. You gain knowledge if you ‘get’ the joke.
In ‘River Duet’ 1 and 2 I’m hoping to capture a couple of those electric moments when a fisherman has a fish on the line. It’s an extraordinary instant when you are literally tied to another creature and you’re engaged in a fatal dance, moving to a soundtrack of two sentient beings engaged in the eternal struggle of survival. How will it end?
More Photos of the Installation
In late July and early August I spent a week ‘funkifying’ the Kenai Fair grounds in Ninilchik Alaska in preparation for the first annual Salmonstock festival. Three days of fish, fun and music in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. Check out our salmon-inspired work by clicking right here.
The faculty from the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences (SAFS) department commissioned this painting. The original is 7 by 15 feet, acrylic on canvas and took me about a year to paint. It’s hanging prominently on the wall at the SAFS building. What is the Salish Sea? Here’s what Wikepedia has to say: The name Salish Sea was coined only in the late 20th century, and was officially recognized by the United States in 2009 and by Canada in 2010, to describe the coastal waterways surrounding southern Vancouver Island and Puget Sound between Canada and the United States of America. Its major bodies of water are Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
There are about 100 species of fish depicted along with the Seattle skyline, Mt. Rainier, a pencil, a paintbrush, a slice of pizza, the Edgewater Hotel, the Kalakala ferry, and Professor Trevor Kincaid. You can get signed art posters of this insanely detailed fish-filled image in our web store by clicking right here.
There’s also a species identification chart posted online if you click right here.
After three years of planning, design and production we’ve finished and installed a 4oo foot long mural for NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center located in beautiful Pacific Grove, California. Working with scientists at the lab we came up with a theme based on the changing critters of the California current. I designed and drew the 32 panels that surround the building. Roberto Salas and the fastest brush in the west, Guillermo ( AKA Memo) Jauregui, painted each six by eight foot panel down in San Diego. They used acrylic paints on unwoven fabric that was later adhered to the concrete walls of the lab.
Check out the o-fish-al NOAA website about the mural at http://swfsc.noaa.gov/pg-mural.aspx. NOAA plans to produce a lot more educational outreach material so stay tuned for more developments.
In May of 2006 I was part of an art crew that painted two 100 ft. long “wild fish” murals on a cold storage building. in Sitka, Alaska. I worked with fellow artists Roberto Salas, Tlingit master carver Will Burkhart, and Guillermo (Memo) Jauregui to create this gigantic work. We were assisted by a couple of talented High Schoolers Lisa Teas and Cory Welsh. We finished the project in about a month’s time.
Many Sitkans worked countless hours raising money for the murals and in helping out with the execution of the project. Lisa Busch kicked things off a few years ago when she won the Volvo for Life award for her volunteer work around Sitka and put her award money toward the mural.
The Rasmuson Foundation also contributed substantially, paying for most of the materials and paint. John Straley (Alaska’s writer laureate!)worked as a volunteer project manager and did wonders in raising money in the community. His son Finn Straley worked many hours along with carpenter extraordinaire Pat Hughes during the installation and hanging. Megan Pasternak worked many hours helping us with the execution of the piece. Russell’s Store for Men kicked in with a rather nice donation. Barth and Mary Alice Hamberg put me up in their lovely abode and fed me many a fine meal. The Sitka Arts Council spearheaded the whole thing. Jamie Autry acted as our official host at the University of Alaska Sitka campus, where we painted the panels in an old aircraft hanger. Artist Nick Galanin spent time working with his Uncle Will Burkhart.
It really takes a community to paint a mural on this scale. Thank you Sitka!
Here’s a photo of the credit panel we painted for the debut party we had in mid-June:
Here are some snapshots of the mural:
In the summer of 2001 I worked with a team of artists painting a 40 foot long trailer for the Alaska Fish and Game Department. It’s a mobile classroom that travels from town to town educating kids about the cool ways of Alaskan Fish
Fellow artists Roberto Salas, Guillermo Juaragui, and Carla Potter worked with me in covering every inch of the trailer’s surface. We finished the job after 9 days of very intense labor. Fritz Kraus with the State’s sport fish division was the main power behind making this whole incredible thing happen. I’ve worked with Roberto on several other projects in recent years. We did two jellies murals for the Monterey Bay Aquarium in the summer of 2002. You can see examples of his other public art projects at www.robertosalas.com.
As part of the “Jellies, Living Art” ongoing exhibit, I painted two large murals with my artist pals, Roberto Salas, Carla Potter and Kate Spencer in late August. One of the murals is on display at the aquarium and the other is at the Moss Landing Marine Lab.