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61°North

Marvelous Marv

  • Author: Kirsten Swann
  • Updated: August 28, 2016
  • Published August 28, 2016

Art on the wall of the Polaris Bar in Nome, Alaska (Photo by Kirsten Swann / Alaska Dispatch News)

The year was 1985: Libby Riddles was about to make history as the first woman to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Alaska was coming to the end of that one big oil boom and a man named Marv was sitting down to sketch at a dive bar up in Nome.

Marv was an artist of people. From his perch in the Polaris Bar, he drew miners and trappers and cooks and clerks, beauty queens and overgrown fishermen. Hundreds of them. On wood shingles, he captured the outlines of their faces and the quirky bits of their personalities: feisty, flirty, matronly, cantankerous. He recorded their names and their hometowns, then signed his work with a date and a flourish. Usually, he just wrote "Marv." Occasionally, he signed his work as "Marvelous Marv," and at least once—on a caricature of Ruth Simon of White Mountain—he signed his full name: Marvin Elving.

More than three decades have passed since then. Nome changed. Alaska did, too. People came and went. Memories faded. But on the walls of a bar at the north end of Front Street, a part of Alaska history stays frozen in time.

If you've lived here long enough, you might recognize a few names. There's Dick Mackey, 1978 Iditarod champion, right next to Cathy Mackey and 1983 champion Rick Mackey, Dick's son. There's the late "Jack" Fuller, World War II veteran, state legislator and former commanding officer of the Alaska National Guard's First Eskimo Scout Battalion, once awarded a Silver Star for gallantry on the Isle of Iwo Jima. Leo Rasmussen, Nome's frequent former mayor and longtime Iditarod volunteer and race organizer. Tina, the only real belly dancer in town. Grandpa Duke from St. Lawrence Island. Nome Ramona. Stebbins Pete.

Raymond Merrill still recognizes many of the faces on the wall. This is his hometown. Born in Nome, he said, he played ball for the Nome Nanooks and graduated from Nome Beltz High School.

By '85, barely old enough to drink, Merrill was working the night shift at the Polaris Hotel. Like so many others in Nome, Marv came from out of town, Merrill recalls. It was right around Iditarod; the time of year when the city floods with race fans and revelers. The Polaris, home of the infamous Iditarod wet t-shirt contest, always filled with people.

That was the year the Last Great Race came to a halt—twice—because of too-heavy snowfall, and Libby Riddles secured her unforgettable win in the face of a blinding storm blowing across Norton Sound. It was a historic decade, in more ways than one.

Alaska's state coffers were flush with revenue from the recently completed Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. People flocked north. Between 1980-85, Alaska's population blossomed by 30 percent. In Nome, the population grew from 2,300 in 1980 to about 3,500 a decade later. New housing sprung up around the city. In those days, the Polaris had plenty of customers, Merrill said, and Marv had plenty of subjects.

He sketched quickly; quotes and clues tucked throughout his work like scenes from some old soap opera. The cast kept growing. Locals, travelers—everyone found a place on the wall.

Unalakleet Jack. Montana Karlene. Anchorage Patches. Costa Rica Gus. Nome Charlie.

"Most of them still do what they do," Merrill said. "A few people have retired."

In 1985, the Polaris was owned by Nome businessman Norm Stiles. These days, Stiles lives in Southeast Asia, his family says. The hotel and bar are now owned by Tina and Kwan Yi. They don't know much about Marvelous Marv Elving, or the people in the paintings on the walls.

As for Marv himself? He's traveled the state and carved a living off the grid; sketched bartenders in Juneau and tourists in Talkeetna. In December 2015, he appeared in an episode of the Destination America show "Railroad Alaska," building a steam bath at his Matanuska-Susitna Borough homestead, hale and hearty and wearing a red beret. The television show introduced him like this:

Carvin' Marvin Elving, 74

Offgridder

Back in Nome, life goes on. Most patrons at the Polaris Bar these days don't know much about the artwork that covers the walls. When you ask about it, most people point to Merrill.

"History—that's all it is," he said. "It's good to be part of it."

Standing outside the bar, you can sometimes spot barges moving just offshore. Inside the doorway, Marv's artwork lines the walls, the same unchanged faces, day after day. Everyone's smiling. Some pictures come with speech bubbles.

"Where's Norm?" says a woman named Mary Lou.

"What hard times?" asks a man called Buzzard.

This article was originally published in 61°North – The Arts Issue. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com.

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