By Jenny Neyman
The general election is over, and with it the deluge of campaign fliers that inundated mailboxes, taxing the capacity of Alaska voters’ patience and garbage bins.
Most of those flyers found their way to the landfill, but in Nikiski, many found a new purpose as a way to make a different political statement.
“I was getting so many of these in the mail and I figured everybody else was, too, so I had my classes start collecting fliers, and the teachers were pretty happy to bring in fliers, so we just started collecting them in a bin,” said Anna Widman, art teacher at Nikiski Middle-High School.
It seemed a waste to let all that paper go to waste — killing trees, and all. So she challenged each of her classes to make a tree branch and leaves out of the flyers. Two of her students, seniors Sadie Averill and Heidi Kaser, took it upon themselves to turn all the branches into trees.
There was no difficulty finding materials.
“I had one family give me 100 fliers because they have four adults in their household, so every one of them were getting their allotment,” Widman said. “And a lot of teachers brought in whatever they got at their house, which was quite substantial, as well.”
She told her students that whichever class brought in the most flyers would win a pizza party. Her second-hour class took the prize, thanks in large part to Melissa Roza’s large contribution — 1,000 flyers or more, Widman said.
“We’ve still got more that haven’t been used in the trees,” Widman said. “It wasn’t hard to collect fliers at all.”
The challenge — artistically as it was logistically for voters at their mailboxes — was what to do with them.
“We had to figure out how to get the base stable enough and also where to add stuff to it, because it leaned. Once we started adding stuff we had to figure out how to find the balance of it,” Kaser said.
Such strategy could be applied to campaigning. But in this case, it related not to how a candidacy could collapse, but how the campaign propoganda trees might topple if not constructed carefully.
“Mailing tubes, glue, tape and a lot of paper cuts,” Averill said.
The wood shop helped drill holes in outdated, surplus art history textbooks to weight the base of the trees. The trunks were made of cardboard mailing tubes covered in campaign flyers, and the branches, covered in flyers for bark and leaves, were added on with packaging tape. The effect is of birch trees in the fall — tall, tapering trunks with sharply angled branches and a sparse covering of foliage. Two trees are in the 4- to 5-foot range, while four others clear 6 feet.
And they have names — Amanda, Gilbert, Fiona and Barky, with two yet to be named. Because, Averill said, why not name them?
There’s also a Christmas-type tree, about 3 feet tall, made by seventh-graders Sara Murray and Mariah Samson-Souza Sils.
“I thought of doing one differently than the others, and it’s almost Christmas,” Murray said. “That way it’s different from all the other ones.”
They cut heart shapes out of the fliers and cut them in half to make the leaves. Then they affixed them to the tree trunk. Then added some more. And then some more.
“When we first started it didn’t look like a tree at all,” Murray said.
“It looked like a stick with a dress,” Samson-Souza Sils said. “We added some more layers onto it, instead of just having one layer we did like two or three so it looked more like a real tree.”
And in all that cutting and gluing, did the students read the flyers, perhaps cultivating an interest in politics, or at least justifying in some small way the boatloads of money that went into creating, printing and mailing the boatloads of flyers?
The seniors were more engaged with the campaign materials, though not in a way that would have helped them decide who to support at the polls. Mostly, it just made them not support campaign flyers.
“After reading all their fliers, there was basically nothing good written about either one of them in any of the fliers that we read,” Kaser said, particularly of the mailers in the senatorial race between Mark Begich and Dan Sullivan.
“There weren’t any positives in there,” Averill said.
“They always go toward the negative,” Kaser added.
“I was hoping when I did this project that it would make the students kind of think about what was going on at the time, that there were elections going on, and the way different campaign managers or groups were promoting themselves,” Widman said. “Trying to help them come up with their own opinions of what was going on in their community, in their state. But I think this particular project just kind of highlighted the ridiculous side of the election.”
The students selected certain sections of the fliers to use as leaves and coverings of the trees, gravitating toward the most hyperbolic and bombastic of statements.
“Ones that were like, ‘Are you kidding me, that you actually put that on your flier? Really?’ Not from any one candidate, just bold statements on any of them,” Kaser said.
“And the ones where they say they’re going to help the environment, and then they do all of these political fliers,” Kaser said.
“This isn’t even super biodegradable paper,” Averill said.
But in a way, the flyers are now being recycled. Everything except the tape that went into the trees — the flyers, books and mailing tubes — are reused. And the trees will be used as set pieces in a show at Triumvirate Theatre this December.
“So we’re going to keep recycling,” Widman said. “You can make really beautiful art just with things that are found or are going to be thrown away. That’s a powerful lesson, too.”
The students did come out of election season more informed than they had been going in, though their conclusions are not the sort campaign funders wanted their electioneering to engender.
“I would recommend more people do stuff with the political fliers that they get,” Kaser said.
“And that the politicians send out less fliers. Tone it down,” Averill said.
“If they want to save the environment and be proactive in that, they shouldn’t do something that’s completely detrimental to the environment,” Kaser said.