Alaskan artists to release new painting of deceased polar bear, Ahpun

Progress shot of Ahpun's portrait, set to be released on Jan. 20. Photo by Jon Van Zyle.
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - On December 31, just before the new year, keepers at the Alaska Zoo discovered fan-favorite polar bear Ahpun had passed away in her enclosure.

Now, ahead of Ahpun's celebration of life event, which is a combination of what would have been her birthday and a day of remembrance, an Alaskan artist is working on a painting depicting the bear.

"When [Ahpun] passed away, I talked to the zoo director, and we decided to do a limited edition poster commemorating her life," Jon Van Zyle told KTUU.

The poster itself will be available in a signed print some time in the coming weeks, but will be unveiled at Ahpun's celebration of life event at the zoo on Jan. 20.

Van Zyle said he previously did posters for the zoo in the 1980's for the polar bear Binky, who gained national attention after attacking a tourist who got too close to the animal.

The new painting will depict Ahpun and her male companion Lyutyik, who the artist hopes will continue to carry on the zoo's polar bear tradition. Van Zyle said he would be calling the painting "Looking Back."

On social media, Van Zyle thanked Alaska Zoo director Patrick Lampi, saying, "Thank you Patrick for this opportunity to keep your bears alive in art." Lampi helped raise Ahpun since she was a cub, and had a special connection to the animal himself.

As for his depiction of Ahpun, Van Zyle said he got some advice from Lampi regarding her appearance. "Many polar bears have a slight yellowish cast to their coats," Van Zyle wrote.

"[Lampi] told me that [Ahpun's] coat was one of the whitest polar bear coats ever, and he'd received comments from other polar bear zoo directors asking how he kept her so white."

Van Zyle began the painting on Jan. 10, and hopes to have it finished in the next several days. He said that in recent years, he has completed 60 to 70 paintings per year, where previously he used to complete 200.

"At 75, I've slowed it down a little bit, but that's fine," Van Zyle said.

The poster of Ahpun's painting will be available in the Alaska Zoo gift shop.