CAMANO ISLAND — In the early 1980s, Camano Island artist Jack Gunter thought his paintings opposing building a commercial airport near Stanwood were just works of social protest.

He had no idea that more than two decades later, he would have to travel halfway around the world to retrieve them.

“It was 24 years where I basically didn’t think I would ever see my paintings again,” Gunter said.

In the documentary film “The Quest for the Lost Paintings of Siberia” released earlier this year, Gunter travels to Siberia to bring home the 17 paintings he had initially brought there for an art show years ago.

The series of paintings, called “The Last Time They Saw Helen’s Kitchen,” imagined a world where SeaTac airport had actually been located in Stanwood, and how such a commercial enterprise would affect the small-town feel of Stanwood.

“I crashed airplanes into everything we loved,” Gunter said.

In 1989, Gunter took the show on the road with three Russian art shows.

A year later, however, when Gunter went to bring the paintings back to the Pacific Northwest, Soviet-era customs agents wouldn’t let them go.

“I scammed my way into Russia with my paintings, but it was my undoing later because I had no paperwork,” Gunter said.

When the opportunity arose in 2013 to head back to Russia to finally retrieve his paintings, Gunter jumped at the chance.

“I said, ‘We gotta go right now. This chance is never going to come up again,’” he said. “This was not a choreographed trip. We might have ended up staying in the airport for 11 days.”

While most of the paintings had been waiting for him in the museum’s basement, others, Gunter said, were found in unlikely places, such as a bar or an outhouse.

“I was really surprised,” he said. “People had actually heard of me.”

Two and a half years in the making, the film of the paintings’ rescue combines real-life video footage from Gunter’s trip and the lead-up to it, with animations created using Gunter’s own photos.

“The first half of the movie I tell with my own paintings, which makes it visually rich,” he said.

The music, narration and everything else about the movie was all done locally, Gunter said.

“The whole thing was done with local people,” he said. “I’m really proud of that.”

The film debuted on April 29 to a crowded Lincoln Theatre, Gunter said.

He hoped that people who watched the film would walk away feeling better about the world, and the relationships built within it, especially in a time of increased tensions.

“It’s a feel-good movie about how we’re all the same,” Gunter said. “Russian people, American people, we both want to see our kids grow up ... we’re the same.”

Two more showings of the film are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 25, at the Lincoln Theatre in downtown Mount Vernon, and at 6:15 p.m. Sunday, May 28, at the Stanwood Cinemas.

“I wanted people to walk out of (the theater) feeling better about the world,” Gunter said. “I’m hoping that this little film ... I’m hoping that it does something to help a little bit to cut down on the rhetoric.”

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— Reporter Kera Wanielista: 360-416-2141,

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