Although most of Alaskan artist Vic Sparks’ work cannot be accurately dated, there are a few exceptions. These works, intended for family, correlate with family birthdays and events. They also reinforce his love of his boat, The Felix. Here are some examples:
In 1939 Vic used the Felix as the model for the cover of a scrapbook made for his son, Peter’s, 18th birthday. Peter loved to sail and had built a 16-foot sailboat in Vic’s workshop.
Peter Sparks’ 18th Birthday Scrapbook Cover featuring The Felix
I can date another painting with certainty. It shows a boat sitting beside a shed overlooking water with a mountain on the far shore. The boat is named Sheila and was painted by Vic at a family friend’s home in Bremerton, Washington when he and his wife Abbie visited Peter (my father) and mother shortly after I was born in 1947.
It was Vic’s practice to include a sketch in letters sent to my parents. Below are two. The first depicts my father building a boat with me in one arm. The second instructs him to add rockers and shows me riding in the revised boat.
“By Gum! Could Put Rockers under it”
I have no memories of this visit but was fortunate enough to get to know him better during a visit with us in 1957. He sketched a caricature of himself in my autograph book.
Sheila’s Autograph Book
Read my upcoming blog to learn more about Vic Sparks’ love of painting the small fishing boats of Alaska’s inside passage.
In this series of blogs I will showcase some of Vic’s depictions of his boat The Felix.
Vic had two major interests; painting and his boat, TheFelix. Vic left Skagway in 1905 to study at the Partington School of Design in San Francisco. He survived the devastating earthquake that destroyed eighty percent of the city and killed over three thousand people on April 18, 1906
Distraught, he returned to Skagway to try and earn a living. Around 1924 he got a boat that he named The Felix after the comic strip character Felix the Cat that first appeared in 1919. A likeness of the cartoon is painted on the side of the cabin. Vic built TheFelix from a Columbia River gillnetter hull1. He used it as a traveling art studio throughout the inside passage (the area around the Lynn Canal along the coastline of Alaska).
The Felix on a trailer in front of Sparks home
In his ledger he noted on Saturday Nov 15, 1924 that he “went to Long Bay, mild rain, fished-no fish.” He used the boat in a cover of The Midnight Sun, a self-published newsletter done by two teenagers in Skagway2.
The Midnight Sun June 1930
Nord, C. (2012) Skagway Stories. Bainbridge Island: Washington: Self-Published.
Dahl, Robert A. (2005). After the Gold Rush: Growing Up in Skagway. Self-Published.
More about Vic’s adventures with “The Felix” in my next blog.
I am interested in identifying the setting of this painting. It probably is near Skagway, maybe on Long Bay. The mountains in the background may provide some idea as might the rocks in the foreground. If you have an idea please share with me. Thank you, Sheila Sparks Ralph
As promised, the cartoon below shows the outcome of the presidential election of 1908. Miss Democracy tells the bruised and wounded Byran to go back home and sink into oblivion.
Victor Leroy Sparks was born August 31, 1884 in Portland, Oregon. His father was Winfield Scott Sparks; his mother was Charrie Marie (Denny) Sparks. Although he states he arrived in Skagway on May 25, 1901 the earliest confirmed date of him being in Skagway, Alaska is the 1903 Alaska and Yukon Gazetteer which lists him as an upholsterer for ER Peoples. In 1906 he attended Art School in San Francisco and was there during the earthquake in April of that year. He may be related to Will Sparks, a noted California artist, who was an Assistant Professor in Perspective and Sketching at the school. His work in cartoons may have been influenced by Rube Goldberg who was a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle at the time.
The earliest examples of his work are found in 1908 in Skagway’s weekly paper, The Interloper. He was a political cartoonist—later blogs will showcase some of these. Vic’s life portrays a mélange of occupations: he worked for the White Pass &Yukon Route (WP&YR) railroad as a Blacksmith Helper, Fireman, and Engineer. He was a general handyman, Customs Agent, fisherman, artist, longshoreman, and headstone maker. In 1930 he was deputized as a US Marshall to help capture an escaped convict (another story). For many years he portrayed the sheriff in “The Days of ′98” review, a popular tourist attraction. He taught painting to many children of Skagway and did paintings and show cards for the Elks, Artic Brotherhood, and various functions. Each time a new person came or left Skagway he did a Rube Goldberg type card; town residents would sign them. He was the face of Skagway in some National Geographic advertisements for tourism.
In this blog I will depict another Parlor Car Painting and ask for your help in obtaining a photograph of the Princess Louise coming in to Dock; this painting was referred to in a letter written to my father in 1946.
WP&YR PARLOR CAR PAINTING: Tent on Lake, Mountains
Tent on Lake with Mountains in Background
My hope is that someone will recognize this scene and be able to tell me the exact location, i.e. name of lake, mountain, and any other description. The next blog will present another query. As promised here is one of Vic’s political cartoons:
The Interloper, October 31, 1908: William Jennings Bryan and William Howard Taft are running for president; next week’s cartoon will show the winner.
In a quest to memorialize my grandfather, Victor Leroy Sparks, I hope to track down and document as many of his paintings and other works as possible. I have amassed pictures of his artwork but would now like to identify the settings and possible time period for each one. Many of his paintings depict scenes from the Klondike Gold Rush; some of them show sights along the passage that are no longer visible (e.g. City of Dyea). I am starting with his Railroad Parlor Car paintings since I know a little about them
The Mystery of the Railroad Parlor Car Paintings
In 1946 Vic was commissioned by the White Pass and Yukon Route (a narrow gauge railroad built in 1899 to carry prospectors to the Yukon Territory in search of gold) to paint a picture for each of the train’s Parlor Cars; these were used for tourists during their narrow gauge railroad trip to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. In a series of letters to my father Vic writes: July 1946: Princess Louise coming in to dock, rotary made, steel bridge expect to make; March 1947: “Big one for WP “Bennett Church painting in car”; August 1946 “now in 5 cars, 2 more in shop, starting one of, 3 more to make”. Each painting is 24”x30”.
The first painting was of the Old Church at Lake Bennett, BC; it was built in 1899 under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church. This orientation looks down Lake Bennett which is the course prospectors used to go to the Klondike Gold Rush. My father, Peter Winfield Sparks took the photograph from which Vic painted it. Most other pictures of the church are viewed from the side-see second picture.
Church at Lake Bennett, from the collection of the White Pass and Yukon Route
Collection of Mark and Edie Lee
This painting was done in the 1950’s and is in a private collection. The church still stands and can be seen at the Bennett Stop of the WP&YR railroad trip or as a stop on the Chilkoot Trail hiking path.
I believe there were about 15 parlor car paintings; I have photographs of several of them and am seeking evidence of the others. Six of the Parlor Car Paintings were stolen in 1971. Read my next blog to find out more about the parlor car paintings and see a sample of Vic’s cartoons.