Artist Crystal Worl stood atop a lift some 40 feet in the air in downtown Anchorage last week to observe the horizon, a yellow sun in a blue sky. Paint cans in hand, the artist was meticulously searching for spots of the sun in need of more color and dimension.
She and her helper John Osgood, who is with Seattle Mural Art, wielded spray cans, spray guns, and brushes to paint the exterior wall of a building next to City Hall.
They were adding details to the scene. A pink rim on the mountains is for the sunrise or sunset of the midnight sun, said the artist. At the left are stylized figures, one holding a fish, the other a berry-picking basket.
“The theme of the mural is acknowledging Dena’ina (Athabascan) territory and Alaska Native Indigenous peoples as we are living today,” Worl, who is Tlingit, Athabascan, Inupiaq and Filipino, said.
Like this story? Support our work with a $5 or $10 contribution today. Contribute to the nonprofit ICT.
Her Anchorage mural replaces one from 1997 that showed the history of Anchorage. While it showed cars, several generations of airplanes, oil rigs, a horse-drawn wagon, and a ship, all set against a backdrop of Anchorage’s skyline, it lacked the perspective of Alaska’s Indigenous people.
As Alaska Pacific University student Laura Ditto reports, one of the goals of the mural is to make downtown more inclusive and amplify Indigenous identities. Worl said her mural is part of the Alaska Mural Project and presented through a partnership between the Anchorage Museum, Anchorage Downtown Partnership, Alaska Pacific University, Roadmap for a Vital and Safe Anchorage, building owners Barbara and Larry Cash, and SALT, LLC. Worl is one of a half-dozen artists painting murals throughout the city.
She said her mural is the result of a lot of research to include artistic influences from communities throughout the state, including its various tribes.
“I’m using a color palette that's very modern; it's very vibrant and bright. That's on purpose,” Worl said. “That goes to make a statement that we are modern people living in the modern world, using modern technologies like this lift, like the paint I'm using, like the color palette I'm using. But also finding a way to collab subsistence and traditional lifestyles that are now in the modern day. We're here now, living and existing and thriving here together in Anchorage in this day now.”
She’s painted images of salmon, caribou, a fox and beaver across a forested landscape with a river. Once the landscape and figures are done she’ll add a border of images of basketry designs and dentalium shells, which are used in Indigenous jewelry and regalia.
Worl said she also plans to include a water mark of an Athabascan beadwork pattern over the piece. This will feature some formline components, which are more specific to the Southeast Alaska area, she said.
“And then we have the Inua,” Worl said. “If you look at all the different animals and beings that are depicted on this mural, there's a circle inside a lot of them. In Inupiaq we call that the Inua, which is the inner spirit, the inner being, which also overlaps with various different cultures in Alaska.”
She said the mural reflects the value of subsistence to Indigenous Alaskans and the ties all Alaskans have in gathering food from nature.
“The one thing I really thought was a really strong connection in commonality between all people, Indigenous Alaskans and non-Indigenous Alaskans, was subsistence fishing, berry picking. It seemed to overlap with all Alaskans and be a really strong thing in all the different cultures within Alaska.”
Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.
Despite a light rain and temperatures in the 50s, Worl and Osgood paint from early in the day until it’s too dark to see. (Sunset comes around 10 p.m. in Anchorage this time of year). Their goal is to finish the mural, which is 125 feet wide and 48 feet tall, by this week.
“This has been a really challenging project, but also very exciting,”she said.
“I'd say the majority of people have been really excited and supportive of this and have been very encouraging. So I feel very proud to be here and have this design. And I hope it makes people feel good. I hope it makes people feel proud.”
Worl is based in Juneau, in southeast Alaska, where she recently completed a mural honoring Elizabeth Peratrovich, a Tlingit civil rights leader of the 1940s and 50s. She and her brother Rico Worl have formed The Trickster Company, which features formline-decorated masks and canoe paddles, as well as contemporary items such as skateboards, basketballs, and hoodies.
Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help ICT (formerly Indian Country Today) carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.