By Jenny Neyman
Most striking wasn’t the colors, though they were vibrant. Nor the designs, though they were eye-catching. It was more the content of the imagery — the interestingly different takes on the theme “Life on the Kenai,” and yet the similarities running throughout all the pieces in the Paint and Pen the Kenai summer art show, which opened with a reception Thursday at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.
“I think it’s very diverse and there are a lot of neat possibilities for public art. And there’s so much similarity, too — most have planes, most of them have fishing and the Russian Orthodox Church,” said Anna Widman, who teaches art at Nikiski Middle-High School and submitted one of the mural paintings.
Hers references salmon runs with a Native-inspired motif and recreation with a campsite, a fishing fly, a guitar player seated at a bonfire and a snowmachiner. There’s a moose amid summer wildflowers, and it’s all set at the mouth of the Kenai River with the Russian Orthodox Church and Veronica’s Cafe in Old Town, a few oil platforms out in Cook Inlet, a plane flying overhead and Mount Redoubt framing the scene in the background.
“I thought that togetherness was a theme, so I wanted to show that,” Widman said. The lines of the Kenai River and sandy shoreline in her vertical design converge into two hands holding each other at the bottom of the frame.
Kenai Peninsula residents were invited to paint a mural panel or submit writing sharing their vision of “Life on the Kenai” for display in the summer show. Starting this week viewers of the show will be able to vote for their favorite painted panel, and the winning design will be reproduced as a large-scale, permanent public mural somewhere on the peninsula. The placement also is going to be community-driven, with people suggesting and voting on possible locations. A Pen the Kenai writing will be selected to go on permanent display with the mural, as well, and a book will be produced commemorating the project, showing the mural designs and writings.
“Everyone will get a chance to vote on what they want to see and where they want to see it. I’m looking forward to having one of these awesome designs be a mural in our community,” said Marcus Meuller, president of the Soldotna Rotary Club, which is organizing the Paint and Pen the Kenai project in conjunction with the Kenai Chamber of Commerce. “Thank you to all the artists and all the writers. I’m just astounded by the quality in this community.”
Community is the key word in the project — community members submitting their artwork and writings, community members voting on the mural design and suggesting locations, and community members having the finished mural and writing on permanent display to enjoy.
“One of the things we heard last summer with the wildlife art show (a display of wildlife art from renown artists from Alaska and much farther beyond) is that it was phenomenal work, but because the show was such a large show the community didn’t feel connected to it,” said Johna Beech, executive director of the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center. “One of the things we were looking at when doing a show for this summer was bringing it back to the community, bringing it back to the Kenai Peninsula. So when Marcus approached me with this, it was how like, ‘How could you not?’”
She was happy with both the participation in the Paint and Pen the Kenai projects and the turnout at the opening reception, particularly because both included residents who aren’t all the usual faces at such scenes.
“I am extremely, extremely pleased. The work is wonderful, the turnout tonight is phenomenal, especially because we have such a different group than normally comes out,” Beech said.
Cassy Rankin, of Nikiski, brought her kids to see the show. Her family collaborated to create a mural panel and she and her son, Colton, submitted Pen the Kenai entries.
“I think it’s a tremendous opportunity for our community. I’ve always enjoyed writing and we discovered this month through home school that he loves to write poetry,” she said. “It’s amazing, just amazing that there’s so much creativity in one room.”
Perhaps no mural represented community in its production as well as one from Monica Heath’s second- and third-grade class at Nikiski North Star Elementary School. She gave students the assignment to go home and draw their own “Life on the Kenai” mural. Then she took elements from all the drawings and combined them in one mural design, which all the students helped paint. The result is a colorful scene showing moose, fishing boats, migratory birds, fireweed, salmon and much more.
“The sun — the squiggly lines and the circles — I did, the fireweed flower I did, the pointy trees are mine and the snow geese,” said 8-year-old Braeden Porter, of Niksiki, pointing out the elements of the mural that he contributed. “I was just thinking of what a community was in Alaska.”
“It just turned out really cool with all of the different aspects, knowing what his drawing was and then when I came in and saw how it was all pieced together. It was pretty awesome,” said Becky Porter, Braeden’s mom.
For loyalty’s sake the family was pulling for the class mural to win the voting, but Becky Porter said the show overall had a lot of great entries.
“I think it’s an awesome idea, and some of the paintings I would love to purchase. There’s some of them that are wow, really amazing,” she said. “I’ve always enjoyed murals when I’ve seen them in different places I’ve gone, and I’d like to see one here out in public. It’s a community-minded thing, and you notice things — ‘Oh, we fish, we do that’ — things that you’re familiar with that are part of your life, so I like the idea that it was themed around what living here is about.”