Ray Edward Sandberg, 81, lifelong resident of Fairbanks, Alaska, passed away peacefully in his historic home of 73 years on First Avenue, surrounded by his loving family on the morning of January 11, 2019. Born January 13, 1937, to Swedish immigrants Ed and Eileen Sandberg; he was the youngest of her three children, after Gene Traxler and Lenaya Hill. Ray was Ed’s firstborn (and only) son. Eileen and her sister Naimy Jackson’s folks came from Lulea, Sweden, to seek a pioneering lifestyle and the frontier’s opportunities.
The family moved from their first home near Ft. Wainwright into their First Avenue home when Ray was eight years old. At 13, Ray lost his power lineman father Ed to electrocution. Eileen later opened the house to boarders to help support the family, teaching Ray the value of hospitality at an early age. Ray graduated from Fairbanks High School and earned his B.A. in English from the University of Alaska in 1958. Shortly after college, Ray served in the military. The US Army was grooming him for top secret work; however, he got water on the knee when posted near Monterey, California, and spent his enlisted time stationed in Germany as a clerk. Ray received a medal of good conduct and was honorably discharged in 1962, serving in the reserves until 1966 at Ft. Wainwright. Ray worked briefly as a furniture store clerk; 16 years as an advertising sales supervisor at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner; and as a cook up north during the pipeline days. However, his true and ultimate passion was always painting.
An artist in the traditional manner, Ray’s talent for painting was inspired at a young age. His mother purchased his first set of oil paints and taught him an early appreciation for the beauty of nature. Almost always having a brush in hand, Ray made an impression on the community around him, receiving several awards throughout his formative years. His professional painting background also includes eight years of study under M. C. “Rusty” Heurlin, deemed the State’s finest painter of Alaska Natives. From Heurlin, Ray learned composition, tone, values, spirit, and the telling of one’s story in a painting. Ray held that his teacher instilled in him the desire to express himself faithfully and with conviction.
Ray possessed a pioneering spirit. His immigrant grandfather walked back and forth to Valdez (a one-way distance of 364 miles) three times before there were gravel roads between the towns. Ray remembered how they loved being alone out on the creeks, which vein Alaska’s wilderness. A romantic at heart, he preferred to paint what once was, creating a feeling of nostalgia for the viewer.
Ultimately, Ray’s love of art compelled him to embark on a career as a professional artist. Selling his sole prized Heurlin painting to sustain his family until his first and very successful art show, he knew what it took to be a starving artist. Ray had many exhibits and described his paintings as “peaceful.” He always strived for a spiritual quality in his work, feeling that painting brought him closer to his Creator.
Ever eloquent, Ray once said, “An artist spends his day gathering, cherishing and cultivating experiences he feels he must exclaim to others through his medium. Alaska abounds in unique grandeur, ever changing in mood with the four seasons.”
Ray enjoyed brilliant colors and surrounded himself with them. He spent the majority of his life downtown in his childhood home, where he continued his mother’s legacy planting stunning flower gardens from seed each summer until his very last. He also decorated the Chena riverbank with his next-door neighbor Gordon Weir, planting vibrant flowers and cultivating the riverside for several years, until the Centennial project took this area over. For Ray, planting flowers was like painting the land with color. When he enjoyed breaks from gardening, he spent them at his family’s mine on the Totatlanika River. This place was extremely dear in his heart, where he would set up his paint supplies and relax, letting nature fill his canvases.
Ray’s devotion to painting paralleled his compassion toward the many people who entered his life. His effortless charm drew people to him from all walks of life. In 1975, Ray married Donna Redhead, also a student of Rusty Heurlin, who gave her away at their First Assembly of God wedding in Fairbanks. Ray and Donna had three creative children, and struggled to make ends meet. They converted their backyard into a vegetable garden; fished for salmon at Chitina; and hunted moose to provide food. Though these times were not easy, the family was happy. They had faith they would make it through, and that Ray would still succeed in his art career. As the children grew, so did Ray’s successes.
His home was converted to an elegant studio-gallery, and hosted many successful art shows. Ray took on countless commissions to paint exactly what he perceived collectors desired, many of which are on display at local establishments, museums, as well as in local and worldwide private collections. Ray Sandberg’s hard-earned artistic reputation extends far beyond Alaska.
Ray’s life wasn’t perfect, as alcohol had a firm grasp during stressful times. As his 26-year marriage ended in divorce, Ray continued his path toward finding himself. Throughout Ray’s life, he found victory over his struggles through his personal faith and close relationship with Jesus Christ. He found accountability as well as companionship while facing these challenges in a continuing support group. He became an esteemed elder, providing encouragement to many facing similar struggles, always with heartfelt care and never judgement. Throughout this time, his connection and sensitivity to others grew richly, and his children and grandchildren enjoyed his love. His gentle and compassionate spirit truly became his greatest work of art, taking a lifetime to complete.
Ray will be lovingly remembered by his children David, Arya (Kristi), and Jenni; his grandchildren Pierce, Merrick, Emily, Kaeden, Dahlia, Soren, and Ever; his brother Gene Traxler, his sister Lenaya Hill; and several other dear relatives and family friends too numerous to count!
A celebration of life honoring Ray Sandberg will be held at 2pm on Tuesday, January 22, 2019, at True North Church in Fairbanks, Alaska, with a reception immediately following. Live streaming of the service will be provided at truenorthak.org.
Memorial donations, in lieu of flowers, may be made online to the Fairbanks Arts Association, or at P.O. Box 72786 Fairbanks Alaska 99707, or to the Fairbanks Rescue Mission in remembrance of Ray.