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A mystery painting's maker makes herself known

Myra Block never met the white-bearded gold miner named Albert Melvin Johnson.

Nor has she ever been to Ketchikan, Alaska, the hamlet where the Army veteran spent much of his life before dying in 1982 at age 73.

But the talented artist from Cave Junction who now lives in Sonoma, Calif., figures her portrait of the man locals fondly knew as Rocky is right where it should be.

"I think the legionnaire has found his home," she says. "I would never want to take him away from there."

You may recall this column two weeks ago focused on a mysterious painting that popped up last year in the American Legion Post 3 in Ketchikan.

A Cave Junction woman had found the portrait in the attic of her house. It portrayed the elderly fellow wearing a brown garrison cap with the word "Ketchikan" printed across the front. On one side was the American Legion logo; on the other side was the number "3."

Having no clue as to the identify of the old fellow or the artist, she contacted the post to see if the Ketchikan vets were interested in the painting. They most certainly were, responded post commander Reg Galles, a former Gold Hill resident. But Galles never heard back from the woman. He forgot about it until the painting arrived by mail late last year.

After the legion members tried unsuccessfully to identify the fellow in the painting, Scott Bowlen of the Ketchikan Daily News wrote an article about it. Several longtime Ketchikan residents figured it was likely Rocky, who proudly marched in the town's annual Fourth of July parade, capping off his miner's duds with a legion hat.

But inquiring minds still wanted to know about the artist and how she came to paint Rocky.

There were a few clues. "Myra Martin" and "77" was written in one corner. A card attached to the frame also indicated it was done in an art class with the instructor's name listed as "Divine." The class was described as "513.1-.5, Basic, Int., Adv. Oil Painting." Written on the back of the canvas was "$245."

In the Jan. 14 column it was determined that Rogue Community College in Grants Pass was offering 500-level classes back in the late 1970s. Moreover, an artist named Al Devine - his surname apparently misspelled on the card - taught classes at that time.

Devine, now vice president in charge of marketing for Evergreen Federal Bank in Grants Pass, confirmed he was an art instructor at RCC back then. The artist's name was familiar to him but he couldn't quite place her.

I then took a week off to work on my never-ending book while waiting for alert readers, who never take a vacation, to do their work.

They did not disappoint.

Charlene Hickerson, a longtime Cave Junction resident, thought the name rang a bell. So she rang up former CJ resident Dorine Moore, a math teacher at North Medford High School. Turns out Myra Martin is Moore's aunt by marriage, although they lost contact with each other when the artist left the area years ago.

But the artist's daughter had contacted Moore a few months ago.

Moore called her, and she called the Tribune.

"I remember that painting like she painted it yesterday," says LaMona Holt DiBenedetto of Las Vegas, a 1980 graduate of Illinois Valley High School. "I was 13 or 14. Sad thing is we don't have any pictures of it. She's sold most of her paintings. We haven't kept very many."

Her mother, 64, now married to David Block, was happy to talk about the painting.

"I was doing portraits for different people," recalls Myra Block.

"I ran across this fellow in a magazine with that white beard and sparkle in his eyes. I painted him just for fun."

The caption under the photograph indicated the fellow was a miner, she recalls.

"Right after I finished him, a man in his 40s who had three or four daughters had a stroke," she says. "He was paralyzed on one side.

The town decided to hold a benefit auction for him. I thought this sweet old man would be a good thing to donate. But I never knew who bought it or how much it sold for." The artist, who remembers Devine as a good art instructor at RCC, is still taking classes under the theory that one should never quit learning.

And she plans to go to Ketchikan on her first-ever trip to Alaska to visit her old painting.

"I'm thrilled the painting has found its home," Block says. "The old guy is home. I like that."