STANWOOD — Carved out of a birch forest in the middle of Siberia is Stalin’s once-secret city of Akademgorodok. In this Russian academic center of science and culture is a cache of a dozen paintings by a well-known Camano Island artist.
Jack Gunter, 65, plans to fly to Russia in September to “rescue” his long-lost paintings, which he left there for a traveling art show in 1989, shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union.
The art has remained in Siberia ever since, owing to a customs dispute. When the paintings first arrived, a customs official in Akademgorodok volunteered to unseal the paintings and to keep the paperwork.
“A year later, on the return trip to retrieve my artwork, I found that everything in the Soviet Union had changed. The Berlin Wall had fallen, Yeltsin was now in charge, and something like freedom was trying to get a foothold,” Gunter said. “And the customs agent who had witnessed the unpacking of my art crates was nowhere to be found, a victim of regime change.”
Gunter, who has studios in Stanwood and on Camano, is known for his colorful artwork on large canvases that takes satirical jabs at government and cultural convention.
He made fun of the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival in its early years portraying it as the “Skagit Valley Traffic Festival” and Gunter printed up a bunch of T-shirts for Farmers Against Raising Tulips, a group of pea farmers who couldn’t get their harvesters on the back roads because of the bumper-to-bumper tourist traffic. He’s also known for his paintings that include flying pigs.
In 1989, a peace delegation from Akademgorodok visited Stanwood, and the visitors were taken to Gunter’s art gallery. There they saw his 1988 artistic reaction to a proposal then to put an airline runway — “SeaTac North” as it was called — in north Snohomish County in lieu of a third runway at the international airport south of Seattle. The paintings showed airliners chaotically crashing in Stanwood, Gunter’s adopted hometown.
One of the visitors, a man named Valerian Ivanchenko, invited Gunter to travel to Siberia and bring along some of the paintings.
The visit from the Russians and their invitation were intoxicating to the artist, who trained as a chemist, has written five novels and collects Frank Lloyd Wright antiques.
“Among this group from Siberia was a woman who I figured was a KGB agent,” Gunter said. “I hit on her pretty hard because I wanted to know what it would be like to kiss a spy. But, of course, it was unsuccessful.”
A few months later, in the fall of 1989, Gunter flew to Moscow.
The documents allowing him and the paintings into the country were not waiting when he arrived. The Russian contact meeting Gunter at the airport jumped a fence to produce the papers.
“Then a government agent put three carbons in a typewriter and asked if I was a member of a political party. With visions of Joseph McCarthy in my head, I said that I certainly was not, but then I realized that was the wrong answer,” Gunter said. “‘I am a member of the Siberian-Stanwood Cultural Exchange Party,’ I told them.”
In Akademgorodok, the show was installed at the Science Gallery.
“It was my first art opening outside of the United States. I believe I was the second American allowed to enter this region,” Gunter said. “The exhibit was called ‘The Last Time They Saw Helen’s Kitchen.’ It had erotic bakeries serving naughty treats, and passenger aircraft crashing into everything the community held dear, including me in my hot tub and Dale Chihuly on the blowpipe creating airport runway inspired glass bowls.
“Viewers called my paintings political protest. I didn’t think of them that way, but then I realized they were right.”
Along with the exhibit there, Gunter’s paintings also toured Moscow and the city of Samara. Later Gunter learned from a woman at the art museum in Samara that, on the eve of the dissolution of the USSR, some New York City art dealers showed up looking for original Russian art.
“What they saw were these paintings from Jack Gunter from Stanwood,” he said. “The museum lady told me the art dealers were horrified and fled.”
Gunter went home and painted scenes from his trip, using the iconic Russian Orthodox-like imagery with halos around each face, including his own. One painting shows Gunter with a garage sale sign in his arms.
“I was instrumental in the fall of Communism,” Gunter said. “I introduced yard sales.”
In 1990, Gunter returned to Siberia to pick up his paintings. Without the paperwork from the customs official he dealt with the year before, he was told his artwork would never make it out.
“I was heartbroken.”
It wasn’t a complete loss, however. His Trans-Siberian train trip back to Moscow provided inspiration for a dozen more paintings when he returned home.
“The Russians kept trying to show me their monuments, when all I really wanted to see were some villages,” he said. “So there I was, viewing Russian life through the birch trees along the tracks.”
He stayed in touch with Ivanchenko for a while, but eventually lost track of his Siberian contact.
“Then Facebook put me back in touch with Valerian. I asked him about my paintings. Instead of answering, he asked me to come to visit the Altai Mountains with him,” Gunter said. “After a few months, I told that I would visit, but again I asked about my held-hostage paintings. He finally answered that they are OK and safe with him. I may still take cash along in case I have to pay customs officials a bribe.”
The upcoming trip is to be filmed by photographer Ken Rowe, a former Schack Art Center board president, and Jesse Collver, a 1995 Arlington High School graduate and independent filmmaker who has worked for years for Anthony Zuiker, creator of “CSI” and who is a producer on ABC’s “Whodunnit?”
People familiar with Gunter know that the film is unlikely to be a straight documentary. He already has some ideas for staging some movie shots.
Gunter plans to be greeted at the airport in Moscow by a cardboard cutout of Edward Snowden, the American computer specialist who worked for the CIA and who leaked details of several top-secret U.S. surveillance programs. Gunter also plans to hold one of his paintings and fend off a look-alike of Russian President Vladimir Putin wearing the Super Bowl ring he is accused of taking from the owner of the New England Patriots.
Collver, 36, has known Gunter most of his life.
“I ran into Jack this summer on my visit home,” Collver said. “I had made some documentaries in Haiti and I am always up for an adventure, so I told Jack I would go. I am eager to see Siberia and with Jack and the hunt for his paintings, well, I just know it’s going to be interesting.”
Stanwood Mayor Dianne White, who is a Gunter fan, wishes the artist well.
“Jack is an important member of our community. He gives more than he takes and his heart is always in the right place,” White said. “He is well-educated, extremely smart, compassionate and a lot of fun.”
When Gunter returns, he plans a celebratory exhibit of the paintings that were in Russia as well as the paintings he made after his trips to Siberia. A showing of the documentary film will come later.
“There also will be an auction and fundraiser because I need to pay back my brother for the cost of this trip,” Gunter said. “You have to take the opportunities as they are presented.”
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org.