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'Art in the heart' project makes a place for pipes in downtown Fairbanks

Suzanna CaldwellAlaska Dispatch News
Downtown Fairbanks' newly painted pipes.
Left: Amy Nordrum, right: Suzanna Caldwell
Downtown Fairbanks' newly painted pipes.
Left: Amy Nordrum, right: Suzanna Caldwell
Downtown Fairbanks' newly painted pipes.
Left: Amy Nordrum, right: Suzanna Caldwell
Downtown Fairbanks' newly painted pipes.
Left: Amy Nordrum, right: Suzanna Caldwell
Downtown Fairbanks' newly painted pipes.
Left: Amy Nordrum, right: Suzanna Caldwell
Downtown Fairbanks' newly painted pipes.
Suzanna Caldwell photos

With its bland, beige color palate and an 11-story blighted, boarded-up building dominating the skyline, visitors to downtown Fairbanks may not be impressed.

But peek around corners, and you might notice a bright spot -- or actually, bright pipes. The Downtown Association of Fairbanks just finished its first "Art in the Heart" project, painting 13 utilidor pipes that protrude from sidewalks downtown.

Originally designed to blend into the background, the Downtown Association decided to embrace the pipes instead. Each one stands some 8 feet tall; they move air in and out of an underground utility system.

"In this project, it's flipped to notice them," said Amy Nordrum, communications coordinator for the association. "They were maintained for functionality, not necessarily aesthetics."

Sheri Olesen, owner of Chartreuse, a downtown art gallery and boutique, tried to encourage local artists to get a program going where some sort of Alaska-themed ceramic statue was painted, like horses in Lexington, Ky., or cows in Madison, Wisc. That didn't work out, but when out walking one day, she noticed the steam pipes.

"Well, what about painting these ugly steam pipes?" she said.

So Olesen, working with her group Project Fairbanks (a group looking to "make Fairbanks a little more awesome" according to Olesen), teamed up with the Downtown Association to paint the pipes.

About 60 designs were submitted. Thirteen were selected by a committee that deemed them "striking, professional and relevant to life in Fairbanks."

How that can be interpreted varies. Some have classic Alaska scenes, full of fish and mountains. Others are more modern, including a very tongue-in-cheek Marilyn Monroe wearing bunny boots, because "Marilyn Monroe with high heels doesn't make sense in the winter," said artist David Hayden.

Typically Hayden designs structures in his job as an architect with L64 Designs. There's no room for wit in building design, he said, but Hayden saw multiple opportunities for spunk in the pipes. His other ideas included mountaineers repelling into a monster's mouth and scuba divers plunging down the pipe. Those ideas didn't go too far, he said.

Instead he settled on a Banksy-style graffiti rendering of Monroe's classic windblown pose from "The Seven Year Itch" on a Pepto-Bismol pink background.

Hayden's pipe is on the edge of downtown, located on the sidewalk next to a gravel lot whose only occupant is a coffee hut that serves Filipino food. Normally, no one would have a reason to stop there, but lately he's driven by and seen people hanging out, photographing the pipe.

"I'd never take a photo in that parking lot," Hayden said. "But now it has that pipe, and people are making that a place."

A few artists are still adding finishing touches to their pipes. The grand unveiling is set for Monday, Sept. 24 at the Downtown Market in the Golden Heart Plaza, where walking maps will be available. A Kickstarter to help raise funds for the project remains open until Monday.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

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