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When art comes to Main Street storefronts, the entire community flourishes

  • Author: Heather Lende
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 1, 2015

HAINES -- I've been looking at the storefront windows displaying local artwork on Main Street, and thinking about how well they reflect the spirit of this town, in a way that reminds me of something some wise person once wrote about the eyes being windows to the soul.

Actually, it was Shakespeare. I didn't have that ready reference in my soggy brain (it has been raining here for weeks) so I Googled it. Before the Internet, I would have run to the library to look that up. Also, thanks to my laptop and free shipping, I can buy dog food and laundry soap without going to the grocery store.

But I don't and I won't, ever, because I believe in small towns in general and this one in particular. They have Main Streets with real stores owned by real people whose birthdays and weddings and funerals I attend (and who will come to mine). Main Streets are the heart and soul of communities like ours where we are all dependent on one another's labor and goodwill, not just for survival but for the pursuit of happiness. Sorry, I get a tad emotional about this.

Countering vacant, boarded-up buildings

Lucky for me, and now you, since you are still reading this, hope has turned to action on Main Street in Haines in the unlikely form of arts activist Carol Tuynman. Think of the not-so-absent-minded professor meets your creative, twinkle-eyed great-aunt. The combination is all likable and totally unthreatening.

Tuynman's parents, Louie and Hazel Nelson, were among the state's last homesteaders when they staked out their place 7 miles from Main Street. She was in college then, and life took her in other directions. She married, had a family, and worked for arts and publishing nonprofits in Beaufort, South Carolina, and Manhattan. She returned to Haines in 1997 to care for her aging parents and stayed after they died.

Tuynman says Haines reminds her of Beaufort, which was a run-down, historic but artsy waterfront town when she moved there in 1972. Now it's thriving. She noticed Haines had a "wellspring of art," and an institutional appreciation for artists, musicians and historic buildings like those in Fort Seward. She thought she could build on that, and joined the local nonprofit The Alaska Arts Confluence.

"People were complaining about how downtown looked. We had so many vacant, boarded-up buildings. I counted 72 vacant windows and thought they could be used to display art," Tuynman said. She asked owners and absentee landlords if she could use storefronts -- and not just the boarded-up ones -- but places like the busy Howsers IGA grocery, whose windows offered views of the back of stocked shelves. The result: a kind of sidewalk gallery.

She was a little intimidated by Howsers owner Mike Ward, who owns several Main Street buildings, including the one that houses a liquor store, acupuncture office and dance-and-yoga studio, as well as a corner gift shop and a bar. His support was critical. Ward is a hunter, not a poet. His walls are decorated with trophy animal heads.

"I explained my idea, and Mike got this big smile, and said, 'Sure, go for it,'" Tuynman said. Since then she's been rotating in and out artists who want to take part in her project, and adding a few more window displays.

'Astounding things'

Debi Knight Kennedy, who put her handmade puppets in one of the displays, says, "I like the way the work is mixed in with the regularness of our lives -- is that a word? Have you ever seen fine art in a grocery store, anywhere? I never have. I love it."

Store windows on Main Street display locally made Fairweather skis, a chair by cabinetmaker John Carlson, paintings and sculptures by several well-known Haines artists, and a whimsical felt art poster by former assistant harbor master Joe Parnell, whose window features the five species of Pacific salmon.

"We are seeing people through this project we see every day and had no idea they were artists," Tuynman said. "They produce astounding things."

Tuynman hopes art is good for business. "I know there are more cars on Main Street. Everybody likes it. People naturally want to go where things are beautiful." Ward was too busy to call me back when I tried to ask him, so that's a good sign.

The Arts Confluence recently won a national ArtPlace America grant for $217,000; the organization offers "support for projects that lead through the arts/artists, integrate with a community's economic development and revitalization strategies," according to its website. Tuynman and her helpers are adding more Main Street displays and making a walled garden in the granite ruins of a barracks building at Fort Seward, across town.

On my way out of Howsers the other day, I stopped at a window featuring tiny, elaborate paper-shadow box scenes. It turns out Amelia Nash, who works at the radio station, makes them. Her artist statement describes it as similar to Tatebanko, a Japanese art form dating from the 17th century. Honestly, isn't that a wonder? I didn't expect to learn all that while buying yogurt and orange juice.

These windows are good for my soul. But there's a greater good at work here, too.

Tuynman says it better than I can: "The art on Main Street creates community. It celebrates everyone's creativity. The person who is viewing it is part of the process too. It may inspire them to go home and create art, or be as simple as appreciating and displaying their children's artwork."

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