Arts and Entertainment

'Quick mural' takes form at Anchorage Museum

As the final hours of 2016 ticked down, artist James Temte and a single assistant, Nils Lane, swiftly applied paint to the walls of the Anchorage Museum atrium using rollers. They were racing to finish a 2,000-square-foot mural, begun on Dec. 29, in time for the museum's New Year's party.`

"We would have given them two weeks," said Julie Decker, the museum's executive director. "But they said two days."

"We have to be done by the end of today," Temte said around lunchtime Friday. "Or maybe early tomorrow. So we're kind of in a push for it."

Temte's piece is actually two murals, one each on the east and west walls of the space, in addition to a companion mural previously completed on the second floor. It shows enlarged photographs of bits and pieces from Alaska's past, taken from images in the museum's collection.

Several of the images have something to do with transportation. They include sled dogs, the first truck over the Alaska Highway, the jet airplanes of now-defunct Wien Airlines, a transport on the ice road to the North Slope, road crews working in the cold and a bizarre "Snow Tractor," propelled by large, spiraled pontoons.

"I was looking for things that show the Alaska spirit," Temte said. "We're kind of gutsy. When there's a challenge, we persevere. We're problem solvers. We're just going for it."

Other photos show humans interacting with animals. Like a woman hugging a baby seal, another holding a large king crab and the late Joe Redington with one of his pups. As much as anything, it seems that Temte was looking for the expressions on the humans' faces, expressions that suggest what he called "the excitement and exhilaration of Alaska."

The "quick mural" was being done as something like a collage. The photos are attached using a medium similar to wallpaper adhesive. Temte called it "wheat paste" and likened it to the "old street art technique" of applying posters to walls using a kind of gooey papier-mache for adhesion.

The big images are the "loud conversation" with the viewer, the artist said. In the painted-on background he added finer details, lines and shapes, "the quiet stuff."

Temte, who is originally from Wyoming, is of Northern Cheyenne heritage. Some of his detail work incorporates tribal designs, he said. And one of the photos on the west mural shows children in seal-gut parkas who, for the artist, represent the future.

"These kids are really observant," he said. "I think of the new Native science program at the university."

Temte came to Alaska in 2010 and is currently employed in doing environmental health work with the Alaska Native Health Consortium. The work takes him to villages and mainly concerns water and sewage issues. However, it also lets him do art in village schools.

"It's every artist's dream," he said. "A constant paycheck."

But his reputation as an artist is growing. He's been selected for a coveted slot as a resident artist at Denali National Park and Preserve this year. He'll work from a remote cabin there in March along with his friend and sometime collaborator Steve Gordon.

"It'll still be winter, so I'll have to take a dog sled to get in there," Temte said enthusiastically.

The murals will provide art in the atrium as the space undergoes renovations over the next four months, Decker said: "There'll be several small construction zones." Among other things, the fountain will be relocated outside and the big totem pole near the elevator will be removed.

The pole, originally created as one of a pair, will be taken down this week, Decker said. It is returning to Sitka, where it will be reunited with its mate and will be displayed at the Sheldon Jackson Museum.

When the renovations are complete, probably in April, the murals will also go away. That suits Temte.

"In the street art tradition, we understand our art is temporary," he said. "It's like a play or a live concert. You need to make the effort to check it out."

In the meantime, he's delighted to work on such a large scale.

"I love working big," he said. "So this is great!"

Mike Dunham

Mike Dunham was a longtime ADN reporter, mainly writing about culture, arts and Alaska history. He worked in radio for 20 years before switching to print. He retired from the ADN in 2017.