Story last updated at 8:54 PM on Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Alex Combs' influence recalled by area artists

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff writer

Halibut Cove artist Alex Combs' suffered a heart attack in the early morning hours of May 22, according to his life partner, Diana Conway. He was transported by helicopter from Halibut Cove to South Peninsula Hospital, but never regained consciousness.

  Photo provided
Alex Combs and his Halibut Cove studio were frequently visited by friends and strangers.  
Combs was born in Kentucky in 1919. He served in the United States Navy in the 1940s and studied art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and Temple University in Philadelphia. It was at Temple University he earned a master's degree in fine arts in 1952.

Coming to Alaska a few years later, Combs taught art first for the Anchorage School District and then the Anchorage Community College, which eventually became known at the University of Alaska Anchorage. While in Anchorage, Combs met Conway, a college-level Spanish instructor. The two have been together for the past 28 years.

In the late 1960s, Combs began spending time in Halibut Cove. After retiring from the University of Alaska Anchorage in 1979, he made the cove his year-round home.

Combs' studio was a favorite spot for Halibut Cove visitors. It was surrounded on the outside and filled on the inside with paintings and sculptures displayed for all to see and enjoy. And to purchase. A sign trustingly directed buyers to leave the money for their purchases in a container Combs made available.

It wasn't necessary to go to his Halibut Cove studio or to the Halibut Cove Experience Gallery to see Combs' work, however. His work was at the center of exhibits; it and he were the subject of awards; his artistry and the energy with which he faced life touched the lives of many.

"I actually took my first pottery class from Alex at the University of Alaska Anchorage and met my husband in that class," Toni Maury, a ceramic artist from Halibut Cove, told the Homer News.

Two years ago Maury and her husband bought Combs' Halibut Cove property, including the studio.

"We'll have it in the family," she said. "I won't run it as a gallery, but will be using it as a pottery studio. We really feel lucky. He's been a mentor of ours all these years."

Ruthe Schoder-Ehri was one of Combs' students in the early 1970s.

"He introduced me to clay by digging it out of the hillside," Schoder-Ehri said. "I don't think I could have had a better way into ceramics or sculpture."

Diana Tillion, a Halibut Cove painter known for her work with octopus ink, also was a student of Combs.

"He was a wonderful teacher," Tillion said. "One of the things he did that was really great was to take the whole class I think there were 23 of us directly to Rome to see how art began."

Rome, rich with its art and history, was a frequent haunt of Combs. Not only did he make several trips there with students, he also had a sabbatical in Rome, Conway said.

In the early 1990s, shortly after Asia Freeman became the director of Bunnell Street Gallery, Bunnell exhibited Combs' paintings of angels.

"It was a wild show, full of vim and vigor, thick paint and passionate energy," Freeman said of the curly-haired figures Combs painted on large canvases.

She recalled on opening night how Combs dropped a handful of curlicued wood shavings on top of her dark curly hair and said with a wink and a grin, "Go get 'em, kid. This is going to be a success."

Combs was recognized with the 2002 Governor's Individual Artist Award.

In June 2003, Combs' paintings and sculptures again filled Bunnell Street Gallery.

"I'm 83 now and feel I'm just beginning to understand what art really is," he said at the time.

The exhibit "Alex and Friends" drew a crowd to the Pratt Museum during the summer of 2005.

"It exhibited a body of new work by Alex and representative work by many of his friends from around the country," Heather Beggs, museum director, said.

Among the Pratt's permanent collections are two of Combs' oil paintings "Untitled #8" and "Green Blue Red" as well as "Octopus Vase," a large ceramic vase at the entrance to the Marine Gallery; "At Rest," a ceramic salmon near the back stairs of the gallery; and "The Leaper," a ceramic sculpture near the video theater of the main gallery.

In August 2007, 33 of Combs paintings were featured at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage.

"That was the last time he had a large body of work available in one place for the public," Conway said.

It was Combs' passion for life in general, for fishing specifically that influenced Homer artist Brad Hughes.

"I'm fairly intense, but he outstripped me considerably," Hughes said, contrasting the Combs he knew to the calm, quiet, low-key side familiar to the public. "If you fished with him, you always found out he ran the boat as fast as it would go all the time. There was only stop or full-blast with Alex. You better be ready if you were going fishing with Alex because it was going to be wild."

That intensity also marked Combs' love of sports, particularly football and basketball.

"In the wintertime, I'd go to Halibut Cove about twice a week and work in his ceramic studio," said Anne Nixon of Homer. "Come lunchtime, he'd always go up to his house. I'd share my cheese sandwich; he'd share his homemade soup. If basketball or football was on TV, you had to watch that. There was no question."

Spanning the generations, Combs' influence as an artist helped shape the future of Maury's daughter, Ashley. Now 24, Ashley said her first memory of Combs involves a present he gave her one Christmas. Although she no longer recalls what the present was, that he gave her a gift "was really cool."

As a youngster, Ashley dreamed of following in Combs' footsteps as a painter.

"But I never had that kind of talent," she said.

Instead, she discovered her creativity working with silver and making jewelry. One of her early assignments as an art student at the University of Oregon was to make a commemorative piece. She made an "Alex-specific" piece, a naked angel spoon in honor of Combs' angel paintings. It now hangs in the entryway of the studio owned by her parents, where Combs once worked.

Four of Combs' pieces sold last week, shortly after news of his death began to spread, according to Conway. A few of his pottery pieces remain at Bunnell. What will happen to his remaining work is uncertain for now.

"We may eventually have some pieces available," Conway said.

It is in the pieces he created, the instruction he gave, the friendships he shared that Combs' impact was felt.

"He never failed to encourage me and remind me of my talent and also my responsibility to use it," Schoder-Ehri said. "He would always bring me back to the best part of myself."

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at