A Mural to Honor Dena'ina Ełnena
It’s three in the morning and I’m covered in paint. I’m floating thirty-five feet up in the air on G Street in downtown Anchorage. I can barely see the buildings surrounding me, it’s foggy, dark, silent, and I am having a ball. I’ve been this high up before, but this is my largest mural by far. At a scale of 125 feet wide by 48 feet tall, I am reminding myself I am not afraid. It’s been a 15-hour workday, but I’ve got three weeks to finish. Despite time, rain, wind, and chaos, I am here to bring color to downtown Anchorage.
Anchorage is located within Dena'ina Ełnena, the traditional homeland of the Dena'ina Athabascan people. I am proud to identify as an Athabascan, Tlingit, Yupik, and Filipino from Alaska. I am fortunate that my family and clan members ensured that I grew up knowing who I am and where I come from. I grew up between Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau.
Photo by: Charles Tice
During my childhood I fell in love with the work of John Hoover, an Aleut artist from Cordova, whose woodwork, paintings, and bronze-cast sculptures can be found in public spaces throughout Anchorage. One of my favorites is a large bronze-cast raven that marks the entrance of the Alaska Native Heritage Center. The Volcano Woman is another amazing example of Hoover’s work and is a red cedar sculpture found in the lobby of the William A. Egan Civic & Convention Center. Some of his best pieces are featured in the Art in Public Places gallery at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
Alaskan artists like Hoover inspire me to tackle big projects like a mural which takes a lot of time, effort, and planning. The process for this particular project began two years ago when I applied to a call out for local artists by a collective made up of the Alaska Mural Project, Anchorage Museum, Alaska Pacific University, and the Anchorage Downtown Partnership. I was interviewed and selected by a panel of jurors, and eventually worked with a team to manage the project, engage with cultural leaders, with other artists, and take on my own apprentices. The best part is that this was one of many (and more to come) murals that went up in Anchorage by artists I admire including James Temte, Will Kozloff, and Ted Kim. While I was working on my mural, Yupik artist Drew Michael was also working on one at the Kobuk Coffee building on West Fifth Avenue. His mural features imagery of religious iconography blended with traditional mask making with the hopes of bringing to light different ways of healing. It was encouraging to do something so terrifying and exciting at the same time in the same city!
Photo by: Jimmy Riordan
It was challenging to create a design that could honor Dena'ina Ełnena. The artwork includes designs from several different Alaska Native groups. I wanted this mural to acknowledge Dena’ina territory and be inclusive of the abundance of culture and wide range of tribes that live and thrive in Anchorage. The one factor I found that connected all peoples of Alaska was subsistence. Thus, the depiction of land, fishing for salmon, picking berries, and the migration of animals came to mind. The human figures are painted in formline design (Tlingit). All the animals have a gold circle in their center, representing the Inua or inner spirit (Yupik). The sheer floral pattern that appears to watermark the whole wall comes from Athabascan beadwork designs. And the color palette is just for fun! I wanted to make a bold statement. We are here and thriving in Dena'ina Ełnena! And what fun it is to be a contemporary artist and have access to bright colors and new technology.
The painting process consisted of measurements, transferring the background using mark points and photoshop. Painting included the use of spray cans, a spray gun, rollers, brushes, and a series of makeshift tools to apply color blocks, strokes, blends, and various textures in multiple opacities. I did not know if anything was going to work or turn out. I just did it and did it as fast as possible. One day the rain decided to partake, which pleasantly (although stressful at the moment) dissolved the blue-sky paint into the pink skyline. Often times in Alaska’s climate you have to embrace moments when nature reminds us who is ultimately in control.
While painting this mural I was reminded that Anchorage is an open canvas and things are happening! We are seeing more diversity and local talent being represented in public art. The opportunity to create murals in Alaska is a unique and enriching experience. Creating a mural is wonderful because it doesn’t belong to any one individual, it belongs to a community. The downtown Anchorage G Street mural was a project that tested my strength and brought me closer to the Anchorage community.
Purchase prints of the Dena'ina Ełnena Mural here (half the proceeds go to the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage).