She was doing a 10-day artist residency in the Denali National Park and Preserve, gathering sketches and quick acrylic paintings that she would later use to create her oil paintings and prints back in her Stanford home studio. She was also taking photos, thousands of them.
"It was such a profound feeling to be alone in such wild immensity. I just can't shake it," Bryan later wrote in an artist's statement.
Three years later, those 10 days continue to yield rich inspiration for Bryan, as seen in her prints and giant paintings of ice formations, waterfalls, peaks, rivers and snow. She's exhibiting several works this fall at the Community School of Music and Arts in Mountain View in a Mohr Gallery solo show called "Glacier Works."
The show runs through Nov. 27 at CSMA, 230 San Antonio Circle.
Works will include "Ice Walls," a triptych of oil paintings depicting the chilly blues of ice walls above a river floating with ice chunks. The darknesses buried in the blues hint at the cliffs' depths, the silt in the ice and the mud in the water.
"The ice has a strangeness to it," Bryan says in her studio, a converted, comfortably large garage with natural light and sweeping white walls. "It's quite beautiful."
To help capture her subject's layers, Bryan starts her canvases by painting them an earthy brown. She'll spread a canvas out on the floor and go at it with large brushes. Later, she tacks it to the wall, often waiting a few days for each layer of oil paint to dry, and still later in the process it gets stretched over a frame. When a painting gets really tall, she has to climb up and down a ladder to work on it.
It's a warm afternoon in the studio, but Bryan still seems to see Alaska vividly — in her art around her, and in her recollections of her 2008 artist residency.
When Bryan, a full-time artist with a master of fine arts degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art, applied for the residency, she had never been to Alaska. She certainly didn't see herself as an adventurer. Then she wound up in a cabin in a park larger than the state of New Hampshire. Bryan's husband and sons were also in Denali for vacation at the same time, but the park was so big that they were a two-and-a-half-hour drive away.
Park rangers would periodically check on Bryan, but for the most part, she says, "I've never been so alone." She smiles and adds, "I was a little lonely, but it was really good for me to follow my thoughts."
Bryan wasn't completely without company. There were lots of gregarious birds, and one day a small red fox stood and watched her paint.
Also, her riverside cabin seemed to be "right near a thoroughfare of grizzlies going down to the water," she says. Bryan developed a habit of singing to herself as she walked in the wilderness, to alert the bears to her presence and keep from surprising them.
All the while, she thought about the pristine nature of the wild, what she calls "nature's contradictory delicacy and power," and the worry about losing the glaciers to climate change. She felt she was documenting a resource that might be lost.
"I hope that my work brings to mind the importance of the small elements in nature as well as awareness of its immensity, terrible strength and all-encompassing import," she wrote in an artist's statement. "I want my work to help my audience to hold nature close, to see that we are not separate in our life experience from other life forms."
At the Community School of Music and Arts, Bryan's audience will include students as young as preschoolers who attend classes and walk through the lobby gallery. Linda Covello, the art-school director and gallery's curator, said she thinks Bryan's work will inspire the painting students with its large scale and careful use of layering.
Covello learned of Bryan's art when the artist sent her a portfolio. "It looked really monumental in scale ... I thought that would be really exciting for our space," she said. Mohr Gallery has exposed concrete walls, which lend the venue an earthiness, Covello said. "Land forms look great against these walls."
Other venues where Bryan has shown her art include the Palo Alto Art Center, the Hang Art Gallery in San Francisco and the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara. Her piece "The fire within," a series of 12 panels painted with blazing images, has been displayed as a "liturgical artwork" in churches including Stanford University's Memorial Church and the First Lutheran and All Saints' Episcopal churches in Palo Alto.
Fire is also a common theme in Bryan's art. At its heart, her work is all about elemental subjects larger than life and full of life: fire and ice, rain and snow, oceans and volcanoes. In January, she'll have a show at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, about water.
And for her next project? Bryan figures her Denali time will continue to inspire at least a few more prints and paintings. Looking at one of her paintings of snow, she says she was lucky to see a snowfall during her time there, in August.
"The weather changes really quickly: rain, clouds, rainbows," she says, then pauses, struck by an idea for another series. "That's another possibility: skies."
The exhibition "Glacier Works: Paintings and Prints by Sukey Bryan" at Mohr Gallery, Community School of Music and Arts, 230 San Antonio Circle, Mountain View. The show runs through Nov. 27. Gallery hours are weekdays from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 to 3. For information go to arts4all.org or call 650-917-6800, extension 306.