Russian Mission art installation celebrates water's life-giving power

SPONSORED: Artist Linda Lyons captures the Yukon River community’s connection with the water that sustains them.

From the plane window, the river channels snake across a frozen landscape far below, silver threads against a backdrop of mottled brown and green and gray. Glimmering ponds dot the horizon, hugging the curves of the river and stretching as far as the eye can see.

Linda Lyons snapped a photograph, then another.

The patterns would be incorporated into a giant mural -- spread across panels nearly 20 feet long -- created by Lyons and inspired by the Yukon River community of Russian Mission. The painting itself is part of something even bigger; a celebration of water, history and culture known as Water is Life.

"The mural is a way to bring the community together around a theme," said Lyons one spring afternoon from her Anchorage studio.

The Water is Life project is organized by the National Tribal Water Center and the Alaska Rural Utility Collaborative, a statewide program overseen by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. While NTWC works to improve the health of American Indian and Alaska Native communities nationwide, ARUC manages water systems around rural Alaska, including in Russian Mission. Through the collaborative, each local utility is treated like a standalone nonprofit, depending on customers and community support to pay the bills. Russian Mission was struggling.

That's where Water is Life comes in. The project aims to promote understanding and create pride in ownership around the community's aquatic resources, according to James Temte, a prolific artist and NTWC's director of tribal operations. Lyons' mural is the centerpiece of the effort.

"It's kind of just a celebration and a way to raise awareness," Temte said. "When we talk about water and sanitation, we want to focus on not only the human body, but also our minds as well."

Russian Mission was one of two Alaska communities chosen to take part in Water is Life 2016. The process began with a flight out to the village, some 400 miles west of Anchorage and around 70 miles north of Bethel.

During that first visit, Lyons gathered in the school with residents of the 330-person community. There was food and Yup'ik dancing and conversation, elders and children and everyone in between.

"They talked about water being a part of their life, and the cycle of life," Lyons recalled.

She sought to understand their relationship with their environment.

Built on the banks of Alaska's largest river, Russian Mission lives off the land and the water. Residents hunt moose, beaver and waterfowl. In the summer, they fish with nets. In the winter, they drop their lines through holes drilled in the ice over the river. The Yukon is vital to the community's Yup'ik way of life.

So, too, are the people who pass down traditional knowledge, Lyons found. She admired the respect with which the community treated its elders. She began to envision the patterns -- cyclical connections between water and well-being, the keepers of culture and the community's future. The mural would be a way to tie it all together.

"It's interesting how these things begin to connect," Lyons said. "The composition started to revolve around this central figure, and how traditions are maintained, and that sense of connectivity and continuity, which relates to the flow of water and all the transitions that water goes through within the environment and in a community."

She went to work designing a painting that includes the winding patterns of the river, the animals, the people and the sweeping power of time-honored tradition. She chose a subdued palette, full of the natural colors of river, mountain and tundra; mossy greens, flinty greys and shades of blue.

In late March, she flew back to Russian Mission to paint. The patterns she photographed out the plane window began to bloom across canvas stretched on the school's gym floor. When complete, the mural would serve as a colorful reminder of the ways water shapes daily life in wild parts of western Alaska. A celebration, Temte said.

"Art, I think, is very powerful, but it's also very universal," he said. "I think that art can bring that element of just celebration and honor to communities, and that's why I love this project."

Learn more about the National Tribal Water Center and Water is Life project here.

This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 150,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.?

This article was produced by the special content department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with ANTHC. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.