Ivan James is pictured in this photo. (Courtesy Photo | Henry James)

Ivan James is pictured in this photo. (Courtesy Photo | Henry James)

Man found deceased was Tlingit artist, Vietnam veteran

You’ve probably seen his work.

Ivan James is remembered by friends and family as a warm and giving man, as well as artistically gifted.

The 77-year-old Tlingit artist, carpenter and handyman passed away Saturday, Aug. 3. His nephew, Henry James, said his uncle passed away from natural causes.

Henry James said he’s glad his uncle’s memory will persist in public spaces, including the JACC, as well as with the friends and family who have some of Ivan James’ art.

“The one I cherish is the one he got me for my birthday, which was a painted raven on a leather jacket,” Henry James said in a phone interview.

Henry James said he had told his uncle birthday wishes were all he wanted, but his uncle surprised him with the customized garment.

“Since I’m a Tlingit Raven, he painted a raven,” Henry James said. “I’ll cherish it forever.”

Henry James shows off his leather jacket painted by his uncle, Ivan James, on Friday, Aug. 16, 2019. Ivan James, an Alaska Native artist, was found dead on Aug. 3 at Cope Park. He was a veteran and the artist behind murals still visible at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Henry James shows off his leather jacket painted by his uncle, Ivan James, on Friday, Aug. 16, 2019. Ivan James, an Alaska Native artist, was found dead on Aug. 3 at Cope Park. He was a veteran and the artist behind murals still visible at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Ivan James’ body was found in Gold Creek shortly after noon Saturday, Aug. 3, at Cope Park. Lt. Krag Campbell for Juneau Police Department said foul play is not suspected.

Henry James said it was not unusual for his uncle to be at the park.

“As far as we know, he was just sitting by the creek,” Henry James said.

Ivan James was a Vietnam War veteran from Kake, who came to reside in Juneau. He also served in the National Guard at the time of the 1971 Alaska Airlines crash that killed 111 people aboard the plane that struck a mountain near Juneau.

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The National Guard connection is how Ivan James came to paint designs and murals on the walls and doors of the Juneau Arts & Culture Center, back when it was the Armory.

“I remember as a child in the ’70s, watching him paint that,” Henry James said.

Nancy DeCherney, Executive Director for the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council, said in an interview that over the years Ivan James would occasionally stop by the JACC to visit and to repair the murals.

DeCherney said plans for a New JACC call for the demolition of the current building, and the artwork is painted directly onto cement. Currently, she said there are not plans to retain the artwork, but there are plans to take photos of the artwork to preserve it in a sense.

She said if someone was willing to take giant stones and pay to have the artwork removed, the physical paintings could likely be cut out of the walls.

Ivan James’ work is also visible at the physical rehab section of Bartlett Regional Hospital.

Those who knew Ivan James said despite two stints in the Army, which he did not often discuss, he was relentlessly warm and thoughtful.

“If anyone had seen darkness, it was Ivan, but he gave so much positive energy to the people he interacted with,” said Lillian Petershoare, a family friend, who knew him for decades.

She said his kindness had a disarming effect that could bring out the carefree side of others.

Petershoare recalled a recent Friday when she and her husband, who both reside in the Mendenhall Valley, made a rare visit to downtown Juneau.

The two ran into Ivan James, and while the two men shook hands, Petershoare took Ivan James’ free hand as a spur-of-the-moment goof, and the moment lingered.

“Here we are three adults on the corner of Front and Franklin just holding hands,” Petershoare said. “Somebody walking up would find it really cute.”

Petershoare described herself and husband as fairly reserved people and the spontaneous greeting as out of character.

“It’s just that good feeling about Ivan,” Petershoare said. “He was just a really good guy. Someone you enjoy being around.”

Henry James said his uncle was a skilled carpenter, who enjoyed hunting and fishing. Ivan James continued to work and stay active, and Petershoare said he seemed more youthful than his 77 years.

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Recently, he even assisted in chopping down an 80-foot-tall tree.

“It was about three weeks before he passed away,” Henry James said.

A friend of his uncle’s was going to hire a professional to remove the tree, but that wasn’t going to happen on Ivan James’ watch, Henry James said.

“Uncle said, ‘Why would you hire someone when I could get it down in a day,’” Henry James said.

The work ended up taking about a week, Henry James said, but the septuagenarian did manage to take down the tree with an electric chainsaw.

“He was active up until the end,” Henry James said.


• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or bhohenstatt@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.


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