STANWOOD — Artist Jack Gunter’s long-lost paintings returned home earlier this month after decades gathering dust in the basement of an art museum in Siberia.
The paintings were part of an art show that traveled Russia in 1989, and the artist was forced to leave them there because of a customs dispute.
Gunter, 65, and two friends — his film crew — flew to Russia in late September to “rescue” these paintings and make a documentary about the journey.
With studios in Stanwood and on Camano Island, Gunter is well-known in the region for his colorful artworks on large canvases that take satirical jabs at government and cultural convention. The paintings that languished in Siberia were made to poke fun at a proposal in the 1980s that would have establish a commercial airline runway in north Snohomish County.
The return to Siberia was an adventure that Gunter’s legion of fun-loving fans relished and followed on Facebook.
“You wanted an adventure and you got an adventure,” wrote his friend Kate Kypuros. “And vicariously, so did we. Thank you for sharing.”
When Gunter left home, he had no assurance about what the trip would entail or even if he would be able to get the paintings back.
After landing in Siberia, Gunter and his filmmaker friends, Ken Rowe and Jesse Collver, were driven to the town of Akademgorodok, a Russian academic center of science and culture.
“I didn’t recognize much, the area was so developed,” Gunter said. “They had a shopping area bigger than the Everett Mall, where you could buy anything you needed, a change from the last time I visited.”
Gunter’s host Valerian Ivanchenko immediately took them to the state art museum in the adjacent big city to see the paintings. It was decided that another showing of the paintings would be arranged.
“Two days later at the opening, a Russian TV station crew came to interview us,” Gunter said. “The next day we waited at our hotel to watch the show. First there was a story about drunk bus drivers running over people, then one about stray, crippled dogs and another about the wonders of making cheese. Then our story. We filmed it right off the TV.”
The next week was taken up primarily with paying off experts who were needed to appraise Gunter’s art, filling out paperwork with government officials and worrying.
“There was a lot of ‘nyet, nyet’,” Gunter said. “My friend Valerian was sweating. I had been thinking about painting my fingernails in solidarity with gay Russians, but I was told not to risk it.”
Over a weekend, the Americans and their guides headed out for two days in the Altai Mountains near the Mongolian border.
“We made a copy of one of the paintings and pretended that I found it in an outhouse in the Taiga Forest,” Gunter said. “We also met a 50-year-old shaman woman who invited us into her yurt. It was marvelous. She sang a song and then asked me to sing. I chanted the Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine.’ It sounded great in there and she seemed satisfied.”
When they parted, Gunter gave her one of the Seahawks football team jerseys he had brought along to give as gifts.
“I asked her to put it on and raise her arms and yell ‘go Seahawks,’” he said. She obliged, but it sounded more like a common English-language swear word. People will have to wait until the documentary comes out to find out which word, Gunter said.
In addition, Gunter gave the woman an Inuit amulet.
“It was a special moment for me, to give back something to a native woman, an ancestor of the people who traveled to Alaska thousands of years ago,” he said.
On the eight-hour ride back to civilization, Gunter said the party had to bribe the police who stopped them on the highway.
The next day, yet another TV station scheduled an interview during its morning news program.
“It was a 1950s retro set with bright colors and a 6-foot-1 interviewer who looked like a supermodel,” Gunter said. “With the help of a translator, she asked me if Americans like Russians. I answered that Americans and Russians share the simple goal of a warm, secure place to live with their families. I was glad to have a chance to say that.”
Gunter gave his last Seahawks jersey to the interviewer and asked her to cheer on the air. She complied with a smile.
“I was so happy because I had just made a million Russians see and hear a Seahawks cheer,” he said. “It was great.”
Gunter’s paintings finally were returned to him just hours before the red-eye flight home was scheduled to depart. He made arrangements with a shipping company to get the paintings to Stanwood and asked friends at home to make sure his banker in Stanwood would cover the credit card charge.
But it wasn’t over yet.
At the airport, not a single English speaker was around to allow Gunter and his friends to get to their gate. A misunderstanding about a connecting flight through Beijing finally was cleared up and they were on their way.
Gunter didn’t release a sigh of relief, however, until the paintings arrived at The UPS Store in Stanwood.
“It was pretty thrilling to see them back in their hometown,” he said.
Now the process of editing the footage for the documentary begins, Gunter said. If all goes well, it could be ready for a showing before the end of the year.
“Jesse and Ken have 20 hours of great footage. These guys are talented filmmakers and editors. We still have to decide what form the film will take,” Gunter said. “Will it be serious like a Ken Burns documentary or will it be narrated by a Russian woman or like an animated Monty Python thing with talking pigs? I hope we have something cool.”
At the Art’s Alive festival in La Conner on Friday through Sunday, people have the chance to see examples of Gunter’s art, including the paintings now home from Siberia.
Gunter is the featured artist this year at the popular event. The Art’s Alive opening is 5 to 9 p.m. Friday at Maple Hall, 104 Commercial St., on the south end of La Conner’s downtown main street. Gunter plans to be there. On Sunday afternoon at the Cassera art gallery, 106 First St., people can see the paintings, now home again, safe and sound.
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out the film
Here’s a snippet of film made by Ken Rowe and Jesse Collver of Jack Gunter’s trip to Siberia to retrieve his paintings. Wait for the Seahawks cheer near the end: tinyurl.com/guntertrip.