Sitka Fine Arts Camp: 50 Years in the Making

Roger Schmidt was just five years old when Sitka Fine Arts Camp began in 1973. No one could have known that one day he’d be at the helm of the vessel on a decades-long voyage.

Roger Schmidt was just five years old when Sitka Fine Arts Camp began in 1973. No one could have known that one day he’d be at the helm of the vessel on a decades-long voyage.

Roger’s mom Linda remembers knowing that the young Roger loved music and “lots of other things” but one of her most vivid memories is of him kayaking in the waters behind their house.

“He would launch the kayak and I’d say, ‘Just be back before dark.’ And every time Roger would push the envelope. When he finally did return, I’d say, ‘Roger, it’s dark out there. I worry about you.’ And he’d say, ‘But Mom – it’s still light out on the water!’” When asked about Roger’s adventurous spirit, Linda says dryly, “He came with that.”


Spirit of Adventure

During its 50-year history, SFAC’s mission has been to “build community in Alaska by providing opportunities in arts, culture, and recreation in an inclusive, educational, and inspirational environment.” Achieving this mission has required belief in its importance, plus creativity in relatively uncharted waters.

The summer camp was founded in 1973 by Jan Craddick and James Hope – then both members of the Southeast Alaska Regional Arts Council – as an alternative to having Sitka students travel up north for summer arts camp.

That first camp took place on the Sheldon Jackson campus and was projected to serve around 150 teens for two weeks in July. This model worked, more or less, for 27 years, prior to Schmidt taking over the helm. But there were also financial difficulties during that time.

Schmidt explains, “Back in 2001, the camp was struggling financially and there were only about 60 students attending. It was not certain that it would stay afloat. One of the reasons I agreed to step into the role of executive director was the sense of community I enjoyed when I was a camper in the 1980s. I wanted students to have the same experience.”

He would be the first to tell you that one adventurous person was not enough and the journey was not his alone, but one of many.


A Community Affair

For the camp to get to where it is now has required concerted efforts from the whole community, passing along skills and enthusiasm from one generation to the next, volunteer hours, dedicated staff, faculty from all over the country and students coming back year after year.

Schmidt paints a vivid picture: “As we began expanding, the sense of community grew, as did Sitka’s support for the camp. This was put to the test in 2011 after we received the keys to the former Sheldon Jackson College campus. We did not have the funds immediately needed, so we started applying for grants and reaching out to the greater Sitka and Alaska community. Over 1,000 volunteers answered that call and put over 40,000 hours into restoring the campus – numbers that continue to amaze me.”

2023 marks the camp’s 50th anniversary. Throughout its existence, camp has been “a safe space for students to experiment and develop their artistic skills and a place where students, faculty, and staff learn to be better humans from everyone around them. While not every camper becomes a professional artist,” says Schmidt, “many go on to become leaders, change-makers and arts advocates in their communities.” Anniversary festivities culminated with Jazz on the Waterfront and other celebrations in summer of 2023.


The Power to Create

Why do the campers keep coming back? What do they find at camp that is so important? Because camp becomes the impetus for kids to expand, grow, create, explore, share and love. Love what? Love what they do and love themselves. Schmidt tells the story of The Four-Direction Signpost on campus.

“Three signs point visitors towards Sweetland Hall, Odess Theater, and Rasmuson Center. The fourth, pointing towards the ocean, says ‘Hogwarts’ which often elicits questions from visitors and parents. It’s there because multiple students over the years have said that camp is like their Hogwarts – a place where they fit in and have found their community.”

Says one 2023 student, “It is amazing that there are so many talented and different artists here. I am able to learn with people who have so many different perspectives on art, which is something that I don’t get anywhere else.”

Camp definitely has powerful metaphors. The community of a band, the flexibility of improvisation, the stillness of creating in a “room of one’s own.” Learning and honing skills – all while having fun doing so – AND learning about oneself.


Growth Beyond Measure

So, what does 2024 hold for SFAC? What can our crystal ball divine – looking even further into the future? What does the next 50 years hold?

The big picture from the organizational side is hope and planning for: continued campus restoration, growth of the SFAC Endowment, and moving forward with crafting a truly need-blind camp. So, more stability and security from the financial-administrative side, while more new adventures and student pleasers from the creative side.

“We will be here as long as the belief that SFAC provides a vital service to our youths persists, so while we celebrate the 50th anniversary in 2023, we are already looking forward to the next 50 years,” says Schmidt, the original adventurer.


The 2024 Sitka Summer Arts Guide is out on stands now!

Pick up your copy at one of our locations or check it out below.

Sign up for our Mailing List!

Please enter a valid email address.
Please enter an email address.
Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.