Art Beat: Are Alaska's Capitol statues diverse enough?

Mike Dunham
The statue of Ernest Gruening by George Anthonisen, located in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.
Photo courtesy of capitol architect
The statue of Edward Lewis "Bob" Bartlett by Felix W. de Weldon, located in a corridor on the second floor of the U.S. Capitol.
Dawson Moore of the Valdez Theater Conference
Marc Lester

While hop-scotching around the Internet in the course of reporting a story that has nothing to do with anything in this column, I came upon the fact that each state has two statues in the U.S. Capitol, supposedly of people important to the history of the state. Alaska is represented by Ernest Gruening and Bob Bartlett -- bronze versions of our senatorial delegation for most of the 1960s.

These were both very important men, but it struck me that, for a state that brags about its diversity, our statues are a couple of peas in a pod. Not that they were identical personalities; far from it.

But they were of the same generation, gender and race, both senators, both involved in the push for Alaska statehood, elected the same year and from the same party. And, from the statues, they appear to have bought their suits at the same sale.

Most of the statues from the other states are politicians in one way or another. A few are famous, like Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, looking somewhat like caped Superman in this rendition. But most are people that even staunch history buffs will have a hard time placing.

Take the pairing from North Carolina: a couple of governors, Charles Aycock and Zebulon Vance. The most notable thing about them at this juncture may be that Vance's statue was done by Gutzon Borglum, the guy who also did Mount Rushmore, which we have heard of.

Illinois could have put in Abraham Lincoln, but instead went with Prohibition advocate Frances Willard and Union general James Shields, a political adversary who once challenged Abe to a duel.

Military leaders (generals, not enlisted men) are popular, though -- probably the most-represented occupation, particularly if they held government office after they hung up their uniform. There's no shortage of Confederates, including CSA President Jefferson Davis, standing tall for Mississippi. And there are a few indigenous warriors who never had much to do with the United States, like King Kamehameha, who united the Hawaiian Islands in 1810, and Po'pay, who drove the Mexicans out of New Mexico around 1680.

Religious figures are also prevalent, including Father Damien (Hawaii), Mother Joseph (Washington) and Brigham Young (Utah). There are even a few artists, including painter Charles Russell (Montana), humorist Will Rogers (Oklahoma) and famous actor Ronald Reagan (California).

Among the most deserving, in my opinion, are the inventors: steamboat engineer Robert Fulton (Pennsylvania), television's creator Philo Farnsworth (Utah's other honoree) and John Gorrie, the father of air conditioning (Florida).

The panoply of images in what is officially the National Statuary Hall Collection -- spread all over the Capitol and the adjacent visitor center -- range from a feathered headdress for Salish Chief Washakie (Wyoming) to a space-age astronaut suit for John L. "Jack" Swigert, Jr. of Apollo 13 fame (Colorado). With all due respect to the revered senators, it raises the question: Can Alaska can do better? Or at least be different?

The rules limit each state to two, but a statue can be retired when a replacement is deemed suitable. For instance, Kansas took out their statue of lawyer George Washington Glick and put in Dwight Eisenhower, looking sharp in his World War II jacket. Diplomat Jabez Curry of Alabama was displaced by Helen Keller, shown at about age 10, the youngest person represented in the collection.

There's no shortage of candidates from Alaska's colorful past. My first pick would be Elizabeth Peratrovich, associated with the fight for civil rights. Others might push for subsistence champion Katie John or Tlingit chief Katlian (or K'alyaan) who evacuated Sitka during the Russian siege of 1804 and then forced Baranof into negotiating for terms of peace and trade. In fact, Baranof and Katlian together, exchanging war paraphernalia, might make an instructive work of art.

Of course we could always go with same-old and select a different politician: Bill Egan, Jay Hammond, Ted Stevens and Wally Hickel. But they dressed like Bob and Ernie, unless you show Stevens in his World War II uniform, Hickel in his boxing trunks and gloves or Hammond in his bush pilot grubs.

For that matter, where would we be without bush pilots like Ben Eielson? Or mushers like Leonard Seppala and Joe Redington? Or dogs like Togo? I'm not sure the rules permit animals, but it may be worth asking; Togo would instantly become the most beloved statue in Washington, D.C.

We could start a trend with Jujiro Wada, another Gold Rush-era musher, who would become the first Asian-American among the state statues. There are none presently, as best as I can see, nor any African-Americans. Statues of Rosa Parks and other famous African-Americans are in the Capitol, but not part of any state pair. You'd think Georgia or New York might have considered Jackie Robinson, but in fact there aren't any athletes in the collection.

We could stir things up with our first military governor after the purchase, Yankee general Jefferson Davis -- just to confuse Mississippians.

Or we could pick somebody really important, Marvin Mangus, the geologist said to have marked the location where the Prudhoe Bay discovery well was punched. Fifty cents from every Permanent Fund dividend check issued in October would buy an excellent statue.

Perhaps cost is an issue; it may be why debt-wracked Illinois hasn't replaced theirs. In that case, we already have a statue of William Seward, the secretary of state who bought us for Uncle Sam, at Loussac Library. We'd only be out transportation costs.

I have a lot of other wonderful suggestions and would have more except the rules stipulate that a Capitol statue has to be of someone who's dead.

If it were decided that Alaska should erect a new Capitol statue, a big question looms concerning which of the current ones would be replaced. Bartlett or Gruening? Both?

Perhaps we could have an election.

'Overnighters' continue

The Alaska Overnighters kicked off on Saturday with short plays written and rehearsed over the course of 24 hours on the theme of "Fables and Faerytales." Playwrights included Jill Bess, Matthew Kress, P. Shane Mitchell and Dawson Moore, the founding father of the "Overnighters" series.

The action continues at 8 p.m. on Sunday at Alaska Pacific University's Grant Hall auditorium. Playwrights include Linda Billington, Carl Bright, Mark Muro and Schatzie Schaefers. Admission is $10.

Applications for artist grants being taken

The Rasmuson Foundation opened the application period for Individual Artist Awards grants on Jan. 1. Applications can be submitted until March 1.

The grants are offered in 10 different disciplines and three categories. Project awards of $7,500 go to fund short-term projects. Fellowships of $18,000 help "mid-career and mature artists to advance their careers." And the annual Distinguished Artist award of $40,000 will be given for "creative excellence and superior accomplishments." Previous Distinguished Artist honorees have included visual artists Ray Troll and Ron Senungetuk, sculptor Nathan Jackson and the late poet John Haines.

Last year the foundation awarded $400,000 to 35 Alaska artists. Individuals can nominate themselves for Project awards and Fellowships. Anyone may nominate a person for the Distinguished Artist award.

For rules and information, go to and click on "Programs" and "Individual Artist Awards" or call 297-2700 (toll-free in Alaska, 877-366-2700.)

Philadelphia Brass performs Thursday

The Philadelphia Brass Quintet will present a concert at noon Thursday at Anchorage Lutheran Church, 1420 N St. Admission is by donation, suggested at $15, $10 for students and seniors.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.