For Artist Living Out Of Trailer, The Road Beckons Again

Roving Painter And Carver Makes Pit Stop In Crownsville

December 01, 1991|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

The odometer on Alan Sundal's Dodge van turned over 100,000 miles for the second time months ago, even before he loaded it with everything that mattered and once more pointed his life toward the interstate.

Time and again the road finds Sundal and calls. Something in the blood perhaps, or just bad economic times.

"I'm 51 and starting all over again," said Sundal, artist and master carver of wooden model ships. He laughed when he said it, and added "that's not a complaint. Like I say, your security is in your head."

He was sitting in the 20-year-old trailer, the great burden of the Dodge van's working life. So many more miles to travel, and the van tires wearing unevenly, and winter coming on. Sundal scorns the cold and fears the winter because this trailer will be home for the near future. Winter makes trouble in a trailer -- pipes frozen, battery system strained.

The trailer has been parked for a few weeks behind the van in a small parking lot off Route 178 in Crownsville, just afew hundred yards off Interstate 97. That road will beckon soon enough.

For now, Sundal has come to rest here, next to Classic Designs, a new cooperative gallery that sells crafts and art. He set his easel in the middle of the barn-like building and began work on another scene of men at sea. He has become happily obsessed with the ocean, the biggest, wildest road of them all.

The new picture shows in theforeground a lifeboat full of men on the high seas. Most are rowing;others are trying to erect a makeshift mast. In the background the 19th-century clipper ship Hornet is burning, sinking, abandoning the men to their own devices.

Perhaps Sundal can identify with their situation.

Until October, he ran a gallery of his own in Gatlinburg,a tourist town in eastern Tennessee, at the feet of the Great Smoky Mountains. He opened the place in 1985, sold his oil paintings and pen drawings and made his living there. Life had settled down, for a while.

But the economy started sliding in 1986, 1987. Not as many people came to visit Gatlinburg, Sundal said, and those who came were not buying as much art.

"It just got harder and harder," said Sundal. "I got tired of being the janitor, head maintenance man, bookkeeper and giving it all to the landlord."

He closed the gallery last December and moved the operation into his house, a place in the woods close enough to Roaring Fork Creek to fish off the porch. He painted many pictures there, many detailed historic sea pictures and underwater scenes based on his scuba diving experiences in Florida.

He also completed two meticulously detailed carved wooden ship models, one of the Santa Maria. It's all there, right down to the barrels, the pillows on the captain's bunk and the pulleys. He figures he spent morethan 1,000 hours on it and he's asking $10,000. So far, no offers.

He was working intently those months, "building inventory," he calls it, to prepare for the road, again. Seems unfamiliar turf has always been home.

Born in Chicago, Sundal moved around a lot when he was a boy in Illinois and Iowa. He remembers that his father, Clarence,was a fine farmer, good enough to improve land that other farmers didn't want. Clarence Sundal would buy a farm, work it for awhile, sellit and move on. Before Alan was 12, the Sundals moved five times.

The only thing that held the young Sundal's attention for very long was his art. He started drawing in second grade, never paid much attention to studies. At 17, he quit high school in Osage, Iowa and joined the Navy. He served four years, saw the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, got his high school equivalency diploma.

Sundal was discharged from the Navy in 1961 and headed for New York, for an art school on Long Island, his first formal training in art. He studied there 2 1/2 years, bouncing all the while from job to job, making some money hustling pool. He moved from New York to the family farm in Pontiac, Ill., where he worked as an iron cutter at a tractor plant, then to Sarasota, Fla.

In Sarasota, he met the woman to whom he would be married four years, fathered a son and came as close as he ever hasto a settled, middle-class life.

"We bought a home -- two cars, two dogs. And it was nice. When (the marriage) fell apart, I'd alreadystarted getting back into the art. It was a hobby, a serious hobby. I started to realize I was missing the boat. So when the marriage fell apart, I just said, 'That's it.' I hit the road. I've been an artist ever since."

He paid the lawyer who handled his divorce not withmoney, but with a painting. In July 1977, he packed up the then-young Dodge van with paintings, art supplies, clothes, and lived on the road. And on the edge. He said he often hunted for meals of venison, raccoon, quail, even squirrel.

"If I had $100, I felt like I was inhog heaven," said Sundal.

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