By Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter
It takes many people to form a community — from different backgrounds and different demographics, brought together in a common place, sharing a common experience, all coloring the larger whole with their unique contributions.
It’s fitting, then, that the Paint the Kenai mural project, meant to be a visual expression of the experience of life on the Kenai Peninsula, has been completed in much the same collaborative way.
For five weeks this spring, in two to three sessions a week, two to three hours each session, a group of artists of different backgrounds and experiences came together to re-create the selected panel submission as a large-scale mural to be installed at the Kenai Municipal Airport later this year.
“It’s been so fun to see all the different parts come together. Every time I come in it’s looked better and better,” said Heather Floyd, one of the volunteer painters.
Paint the Kenai invited any Kenai Peninsula resident to submit a painted panel expressing what “Life on the Kenai” means to them. The results were put on display for the community last summer, along with essays written on that theme for the companion Pen the Kenai project. Local residents in three rounds of voting selected their favorite submission. The results — an essay, “Forged in the Fires,” by Clark Fair, and a mural depicting the landscape of Kenai throughout the seasons, “Kenai La Belle,” by Fanny Ryland — will be installed outside the airport before the end of the year.
But how to turn a 2-by-4-foot panel into a 12-by-24-foot permanent art fixture? With a community, of course.
A call for volunteers went out this spring, and about 15 artists — a variety of experience levels and trained painters to those more familiar with other mediums — responded, with a core group of about six painters lending consistency to the process.
The first step was finding a centralized, sheltered, large-enough location to house the work in progress, which Blazy Construction in Soldotna provided. They offered up the floor space to accommodate the 18 sawhorses it took to lay out and connect all the requisite panels into the larger mural, then built a wall to hold the whole thing upright for their painting. It’s still being housed in the shop until installation at the airport, with a heavy-duty finishing clear coat applied courtesy of the Blazy crew.
“We’ve had an incredible advantage with this space. Blazy has taken us in and built us this temporary wall. Kelly Keating as well as his employees have wholeheartedly subscribed to this,” said Marcus Mueller, Paint the Kenai organizer, with the Soldotna Rotary Club.
Next came the all-important step of figuring out how, exactly, to go about the process.
“It seems like it takes more thinking than doing. We’ve certainly learned a lot. One of the challenges for us has been finding the ratio of thinking about things to actually applying them. We had to think through sequencing. For each part of it you’ve got a certain order of colors, and that also relates to what goes on above and below. There are lots of layers so we were as careful as we could be in trying to make sure we were going about things in the right order,” Mueller said.
The crew roughed in the design on the mural panels by projecting the mural image and stenciling in the outlines. From there painters could start laying in general washes of underlying color — gold for the hillside of fall foliage, white for the snow upon which a caribou meanders, tan for the post-melt ground waiting for green-up, purple for the spring burst of wildflowers, a spectrum of green to yellow to red birch trees sprouting from the swirling greens and blues of the Kenai River, blue for Cook Inlet, gray for the volcano-studded mountains beyond, and black for the star-strewn sky above the scene.
“We all worked on the transferring and doing the blocks of color. So we have little bits of everything. That’s what’s cool is everybody’s helped with the mass covering, and we each worked on different sections of the details,” Floyd said.
There was plenty of work to go around. The fall and spring fields are a riot of multicolored swirls. The post-melt hillside is crosshatched with impressions of the previous year’s grass. The delicate birch leaves sit on narrow white trunks fissured with black cracks. The mountains and river waves are rendered in softly shaded brushstrokes. And there are more finite details throughout — the onion domes of a Russian Orthodox Church, the outlines of oil platforms in the inlet, salmon jumping in and out of the river waves, a caribou traversing an open field and moose tucked away among the birch trunks.
“Initially, I thought it was a bit overwhelming to think that we were actually going to be making something this large. But we do a little bit at a time and make progress,” Floyd said. “And it’s been fun because I paint a little but I’m more a three-dimensional artist, so it’s been fun to see how (Ryland) does something, then we all try that technique and learn how to do it, as well. So we’re all kind of teaching each other stuff as we go along.”
One of the most interesting revelations was that fine art doesn’t have to be fussy. The sparkling stars in the night sky? Iridescent discs sprinkled on the sky and affixed in place with a gel coat. The fine swirls of blue in the snowfield and the black cracks in the birch bark? Done in a Sharpie pen.
“I think we all were like, ‘Really? That’s how she did it on the panel?’ I think that’s so cool — you don’t have to have fancy stuff, you can make something cool with just a Sharpie marker,” Floyd said.
Ryland, truth be told, would cringe to call her own work “fine art,” despite her piece being the favorite among viewers’ voting, and the constant “oohs” and “aaahs” the mural elicits from viewers. She would attempt to profess that she’s not even a “real” artist, having never had any formal training.
“I’ve never studied art. I used to like to draw when I was younger, but not to the extent of doing paintings and things like this,” she said.
Her employer encouraged her to enter a panel in Paint the Kenai, and she did — just for fun, never expecting to have her work selected, she said. She’s from France originally, and has been in Alaska for nine years — first in Anchorage, then Juneau, and now for two years in Kenai.
“One of the highlights of this project for me has been watching Fanny grow,” Mueller said. “She came into this with what seemed like some self-doubt from the perspective of not being from around here originally and not having tested her applications, and I feel like she’s not only found success, but I think that she’s finding a variety of new confidences. It’s been fun to watch her grow into her own shoes.”
In a way, it makes a certain sense that a relative newcomer could so movingly capture the visual beauty of the Kenai — as fresh eyes are sometimes more easily dazzled than those peering through the film of familiarity. And Ryland has gotten more comfortable with the idea of her work being writ — well, painted — large.
“Actually, I do like it, but it’s my work so I feel weird that a lot of people actually like it too,” she said.
The best part for her has been seeing all the volunteers collaborate on the process.
“Seeing your work being done by others and them doing an excellent job has been great. Everybody has been so nice and listening and really making sure the colors match the original. I thought, ‘Wow, this is great that they’re really taking their time and practicing before they try to re-create it,’” she said.
The volunteers are more easily ebullient about the final product.
“I just think this is a really cool project, so I just wanted to help make it happen,” Floyd said, already planning to bring her summer visitors to see the mural, even before it’s installed. “I want them to see it. It’s really cool — anybody who comes to Kenai is going to see this. I think it’s fantastic. We can use this in our landscape.”
Now that the mural is complete, the project moves on to the logistics and fundraising for the installation at the airport. Mueller also is hoping that the project includes an accompanying document — either printed or digital — that both commemorates the project and serves as a resource for others wanting to create community-based public art on the Kenai.
“One of the key parts of this is to try and perpetuate the ability for this to happen in the community. If we wrap this into an instructional piece that identifies the resources that we have locally, some of the physical processes and the thought processes, it could make the development of a mural something that people can feel confident that they can realize,” Mueller said.
After all, forming a community requires people coming together, as well as staying together. And community art is both a symbol and catalyst for that process.
“In my mind it doesn’t necessarily have to be murals. I feel that part of the project is demonstrating the idea that we have the resources in the community for individuals to achieve things that they haven’t achieved before, and take on things that might be of interest to them. Individuals have the ability to do things they haven’t done before,” he said.
“Well, we’ve never done this before,” Floyd said. “And I think it’s turning out fantastic. People could take this in any direction.”