By Jenny Neyman
Lisa and Tom Steiner’s slice of Alaska is an idyllic spot off Oilwell Road in Ninilchik, a cabin perched on a bluff overlooking Deep Creek, with views sweeping from the rolling base of the Caribou Hills to the south and east toward Cook Inlet to the west, in mostly undeveloped countryside where wildlife can and does wander by at will.
Still, there’s only so much of Alaska visible from one set of windows — not enough for a couple so moved by the area’s beauty to buy a cabin and relocate on a spur-of-the-moment whim. So they decided to bring the rest of the state to them. When they tire of looking at their own little vista of the Last Frontier out their living room windows, they can look up and see the rest of it in a 60-foot mural covering the upper walls and ceiling of their cabin, depicting landscapes and wildlife of Alaska.
“Oftentimes I think when people come, their first impression is, ‘Wow.’ But I think they think it’s wallpaper because it’s just too big of a project. Then I tell them it’s painted and then they see (the artist) signed it. It’s quite amazing,” said Lisa Steiner.
Above the 8-foot log walls of their living room is a 4.5-foot strip of bare wall with the ceiling sloping up to a 20-foot peak. That section of wall, stretching 60 feet long if it were unfurled, is covered with tiny, colorful depictions of Alaska’s flora, fauna and geography.
Polar bears and puffins chill on an ice floe. Moose browse in a field streaked with fireweed. A blue jay perches in a spruce tree near a wolverine sunning on a rock. A black wolf lurks behind a ptarmigan, which might be worried about becoming dinner if the animals weren’t all safely immobilized in paint. A hare peeks out from the cover of grass. A herd of caribou fords a river. A tern swoops over Dall sheep. Bear cubs tussle and eagles jockey for position to scoop up salmon. Whales and seals dive in the water as an otter bobs on the surface and crabs scurry across the rocks.
Any animals not mentioned are omitted in the interest of saving time, not because they aren’t in the mural.
“He got a bit of everything — all the animals of Alaska — fox, ptarmigan, bears, otter, Dall sheep, rabbits, caribou — everything,” Steiner said.
And that’s just the wildlife. The birds, animals and sea creatures populate a richly rendered landscape of ice fields, glaciers, rivers, ocean, alpine meadows and wildflower-strewn fields. Again, if it can be imagined in Alaska, it’s probably depicted in the mural.
“Everybody goes gaga when they see it,” Steiner said. “Everybody who’s come is surprised. We had a boy clearing trees on the lot and he came in for a drink. He sat down and didn’t notice it at first, then he just rocked back in the chair went, ‘Wow. Cool.’”
Above it all are northern lights, sunrises and sunsets stretching up to mingle with the starry sky painted on the ceiling — with the Big Dipper prominently featured, of course.
It’s not just the scale of the mural that draws a “wow, cool” response, it’s the dichotomy with how detailed it is. Each scene could be a standalone painting in itself, with every tiny detail — from animals’ fur, snow streaks on mountain ranges, whitecaps on the water and individual tree leaves, flower petals and blades of grass — carefully rendered. Steiner takes viewers up to a second-floor landing to get a better look, and recommends using a zoom camera or binoculars to take in all the tiny details.
“We say ‘mural’ and people think it’ll just be a few animals trotting along on top of the wall or something, but it’s quite magnificent. He does rocks really well, and the Ninilchik (Russian Orthodox) Church is quite amazing. The flowers next to the church are miniscule but the details are quite beautiful,” Steiner said.
Some of her favorite details are ones that might not have as much meaning or be as obvious to anyone else. Steiner is a Christian, and had the artist include homage to Jesus’ face in the clouds, so subtle she needs to point it out if anyone else is to notice it. A bright floatplane swoops past an erupting Mount Redoubt, with Tom Steiner at the controls. The plane’s registration number is the Steiners’ address.
On a sportfishing boat below the plane, an angler is hooked into a giant, jumping salmon. The angler is Lisa Steiner, with her dog, Mr. Pinky, onboard beside her. The artist even painted himself a permanent home in Alaska. He’s got a tiny cabin on the shore of a river, complete with a food cache and outhouse.
“He’s panning for gold, and if you look real close, he’s wearing a U.S.A. (red, white and blue) jacket and top hat, because he’s a total patriot,” Steiner said.
The artist is Michael Dover, a friend of the Steiners’ from “back in the day,” about 35 years ago in Los Angeles, when they played racquetball and ate pizza and did other 20-year-old activities.
“Dover was kind of a shy guy. We didn’t even know he was an artist until we went by his house one day and knocked on the door and he didn’t answer. I put my key in the apartment lock and it just happened to open it. We went in and there were all these murals,” Steiner said.
Since then, Dover has been the go-to artist in the group. The Steiners have had him design T-shirts for their business, Runner’s Gear Inc., which sells Sub 4 performance athletic apparel, made in the U.S. He did an ancient Egypt mural in their California home, and has done others for a variety of clients. One of his largest, next to the Alaska painting, is a mural of the Santa Monica skyline, painted in Santa Monica City Hall. His most famous client is probably John Travolta. Dover painted an aquatic scene in a bathroom, a jungle scene in a daughter’s room and a 1950s scene in a screening room in the actor’s Florida home. Along with photos of the completed murals, Dover slips in a shot of him standing with Travolta — sans his toupee.
The Ninilchik mural presented some unique challenges. One issue was the dimensions. Not only was it large, but it was up in the air, yet cramped beneath a ceiling.
“When he first came up here I don’t think he realized the size of the wall. I told him the dimensions but I don’t think he really picked it up until he saw it. He spent two months — over 500 hours — on it. He was up and down those ladders like a mosquito,” Steiner said. “One thing I admire about him is he has the perseverance and stick-to-it-ivness that not many people have to do such a massive project.”
Also challenging was a lack of firsthand knowledge of his subject matter. Dover had never been to Alaska before this winter, when he spent two months visiting the Steiners and painting. He’d never seen many of the creatures Lisa Steiner wanted him to paint, so she supplied him with photos and she and her husband drove him around the area to get a sense of the landscapes he’d be painting.
“He’s an amazing artist because he really doesn’t know anything about Alaska animals, but he’s got an amazing eye and he’s great with color,” Steiner said. “The concept of the whole thing is the seasons — polar winter turning into spring to summer to fall. I told him I don’t want it to be realistic. I want it to be artwork, but still I want it to look like the animals. So he went more with the realism with the animals and less with the scenery because I’m a bright color fanatic.”
The requests posed some difficulty, as well. One section of wall was repainted multiple times until Steiner was happy with it. Another was scrapped for entirely different subject matter.
“This cute little girl in my church, Misty, came to see it,” Steiner said. “She said, ‘Do you have an underwater feature?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘Where you can see the animals, like in a fish tank.’ I said, ‘Dover, you’ve got to take out that mountain and put in an underwater scene.’”
The result is a pool beneath a flowered hillside and the iconic onion domes of Ninilchik’s Russian Orthodox Church. Orca whales play at the surface, while a school of salmon looks like it’s about to swim right off the wall, and a seal is nose-to-nose with viewers on the other side of the “glass.”
The painting process was a long and messy one, with the Steiners losing their living room to scaffolding, ladders and drop cloths and watching TV through plastic sheeting for two months. But the mural is a welcome addition to their house, and far from the only change they’ve made. They’re in the process of renovating the cabin and outbuildings, and the wall space above the logs in the living room was in need of some TLC. The previous owner had hunting trophies hanging up there, and their outlines could still be seen in the dusty paint.
The house has been a project since they bought it five years ago. The Steiners, originally from Los Angeles, visited Ninilchik on a fishing trip five summers ago and ended up buying the cabin and property from the fish processor they used to prepare their catch.
“We just came here and it reminded me of (the movie), ‘A River Runs Through It,’ Steiner said. “When we came here I was sort of disappointed when we saw the house. It was a fixer-upper. I said to my husband, ‘No, let’s forget it.’ Then I heard this rushing sound, like wind, but it wasn’t windy. We approached the bluff and saw the river. That’s what was making the wind sound. It was just so idyllic I couldn’t resist. We just bought it and that was the end of that.”
Once she decided on having a mural, that was that, as well. Steiner also intends to have Dover back to Ninilchik for some tweaks to the mural, plus another one painted on an outbuilding facing the road. The artist isn’t planning on gainsaying that request, either. In his visit this winter, he and the Steiners played backgammon whenever he needed a break from his eight-plus-hour days painting.
“He left his board here so he can come back,” Steiner said.
Dover said he’d actually like to find more business painting murals in Alaska, perhaps for lodges or bed and breakfasts. Steiner said she can’t think of anyone she’d rather have bring Alaska’s outdoors inside for her.
“It’s real colorful, with gold leaf and sparkle,” she said. “I love it. It’s kind of a combination between realistic and surrealistic. It’s realistic, you can see what it is — it’s an eagle or a caribou — but it’s like it’s better than real.”
Anyone interested in contacting Dover can do so at 213-219-4555 or via Facebook.