Entering the Palmer home of Annie Leuenberger, the scope and diversity of her artistic talent is on full display. The wife of Deacon Curt Leuenberger, a rock hound and artist in his own right, has decorated their house with dozens of intricate pieces of beadwork, painting, fur and leatherwork, carvings and other crafts. Most of her work reflects her Native heritage — Athabascan and Eyak.
‘A SAFE PLACE’
The oldest of eight children, a birth injury left Leuenberger with a learning disability that prevented her from mastering reading and writing. Creating art served as a distraction from her struggles with dyslexia.
“I couldn’t read or write — art became my expression,” she said. “I was on my own a lot.”
Growing up in poverty, Leuenberger drew on paper bags with charcoal from the fireplace. Often physically punished by her father for failing to complete her schoolwork and other projects, the young artist sought refuge in her talents.
“I liked doing artwork, it put me in another place, a safe place,” she said.
As a special education student at Chugiak High School, Leuenberger created the existing Mustang logo for the school and completed her education there in 1978. She briefly attended The Institute of American Indian Art, but returned to Alaska and, as an artist, remains largely self-taught.
CATHOLIC & NATIVE
Her Athabascan heritage inspires her to create works of art using materials familiar to that culture, and she has produced countless gloves, mukluks and other items made with various furs and extensive beadwork. She paints with watercolors, acrylics and pastels but finds oil painting too challenging as she struggles with Attention Deficit Disorder and does not have the patience to wait for each color to dry. Mastery of her subjects, however, is obvious. A large painting of a polar bear greets visitors to her home, almost photographic in its realism.
Equally important to her life is her Catholic faith. Married young to a man with no faith tradition, Leuenberger longed to have her two small children baptized after meeting Curt Leuenberger, her future husband.
After securing an annulment, the couple wed and will soon celebrate 30 years of marriage. They moved to Palmer, where Deacon Leuenberger currently serves at Saint Michael Church. In 1990, after instruction through the RCIA program, Annie Leuenberger and her children were baptized. Together, the couple has four children and 12 grandchildren.
Leuenberger seeks not only to pass on her faith tradition but her artistic heritage as well, and has shared with her children many of the skills she has perfected throughout her 58 years. She finds little conflict in her life as a Catholic Native artist. When her husband was ordained in 2009, Leuenberger created six stoles, one for each of the newly ordained deacons. They are an artistic interpretation of the Holy Trinity and are rendered in dyed moose hide sewn to green cloth. A bear paw, a powerful symbol of strength in the Athabascan culture, represents God the Father. God the Son is depicted as an open hand and in its center, a single red bead, to remind one of Jesus’ sacrifice for humanity. A solitary white feather, ubiquitous in Native cultural arts and spirituality, represents God the Holy Spirit. Leuenberger chose to use moose hide and said, “Every animal has some kind of skin” an acknowledgement of humanity’s oneness with all God’s creation.
The fabrication of the six stoles was a labor of love for the men and their wives, with whom Leuenberger became good friends over the five years of their formation in the diaconate program.
“These men are going to do something for the community,” she said. “Curt inspired me to do my religion in my artwork.”
Deacon Leuenberger also inspired his wife’s mother to convert to Catholicism.
“She saw how happy I was,” Annie Leuenberger said, and added, “God can take all of us in.” And while not all of her family is enamored of her adopted Catholic faith, Leuenberger said, “They all love Curt and his humility.”
A WORK OF PRAYER
As much as faith is a source of inspiration for Leuenberger, it was also a source of comfort when much of her home was destroyed by fire in 2010. She lost a great number of completed pieces as well as furs, beads and the tools of her trade. While she searched for a meaning in the loss, she realized an opportunity to evangelize her children and the people around her.
Spared from that destructive fire was a large painting that hangs in the offices of the Archdiocese of Anchorage. It resembles a stained glass image of Christ, in the background. In the foreground are the painted visages of now retired Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz and Saint Pope John Paul II — for whom she has great admiration and affection. The work was created for Archbishop Schwietz’s 40th anniversary of his ordination. Another hangs in St. Christopher Church in Willow. Various images from the life of Christ are depicted in a cloudlike fashion against the backdrop of Alaska’s majestic mountains.
Leuenberger does not sell her art through any studio, but has been commissioned to create several works for individuals and groups. Saint Michael’s annual parish bazaar and other events allow her to showcase and sell her work, as well.
With the rebuilding of her home nearly complete, Leuenberger creates her art in a neat, spacious home studio with south facing windows looking out to Pioneer Peak and the Matanuska River valley. Her workspace is littered with feathers, beads and implements, as well as works in progress. She has a large collection of rosaries she has made of semi-precious stones and elements of her culture. Her rosaries are unique. Some have small bears made of onyx or symbols which resemble Celtic knots as the “Our Father” beads. All are works of prayer made visible by the work of her hands.
As the year drew to a close, Leuenberger reflects on its challenges. A small stroke affected her balance and her husband underwent both a kidney and liver transplant in 2016. Amidst the tumult, her faith is rock solid. Creating artwork, as in her childhood, is a safe place. It is also her prayer.
“I pray when I do my work that I will be able to continue to do what I like to do.”