Creating a mural takes more than paint alone.
In fact, painting might just be the easiest part, says Anchorage artist Linda Lyons. The bulk of the work is the preparation: finding the perfect design, mapping the surface of the wall, projecting the image onto its oversized canvas and mixing all the right colors. The finished product is part planning, part passion and part physical labor.
Lyons has worked on murals before. She’s traveled the state through the Alaska State Council on the Art’s Artist in Schools Program, and she’s led collaborative projects with children at the Laugviik School in Kobuk, the Kingikmiut School in Wales and the Gambell School, among others. Her work hangs in permanent collections and public buildings around Alaska. Up until a few weeks ago, though, she’d never created a full-scale mural of her own.
Check that one off the list. Lyons added another piece to her portfolio last month, splashing a full-size mural across the eastern wall of the Hispanic Cultural Center in Mountain View.
“I just wanted to give back and have some connection to the community,” said Lyons, sitting in her studio a few blocks away. “I wanted something that was uplifting.”
Her mural came to life during a week of sunny weather in the middle of a month of rain.
Before, the cultural center wall was painted pale beige. Now, two large hummingbirds hover over a bright orange flower. Shades of green give way to a pool of aqua, rolling golden hills and a variegated lavender sky. The painting is an oasis of color on the Mountain View street corner.
The Hispanic Cultural Center itself is an aging, well-used building, home to a regular food pantry and daily AA meetings. It sits on the east end of Mountain View’s commercial corridor, where it’s hemmed in by a pawn shop, a church, a transitional living facility and a new affordable housing project. The sidewalk out front is traveling by people walking to the bus stop, the Holiday gas station, Red Apple and Brown Jug.
Painting the side of the two-story structure had some challenges, Lyons said. One part of the wall protrudes from the rest. The bottom is cinderblock and the top is plaster. The mural design also had to fit around a light and a satellite dish and a window.
“Everything had to be placed perfectly,” Lyons said.
To transfer her design from canvas to cultural center, she drew the flower and the hummingbirds then used a projector to enlarge the images on her studio wall and create giant stencils. Using a computer, a grid was placed over a digital photo of the cultural center wall, and the design was copy-and-pasted to scale.
“So now I have this image – I have a grid – so I knew where everything is and how big it had to be,” Lyons explained. “By placing those elements on to the picture of wall with the grid, you could make it fit.”
Graham Dane — Lyons’ husband, fellow artist and studio-mate – helped throughout the process, she says.
When the design was ready and the weather was right, they covered the face of the wall with scaffolding and a snap-line grid, using the stencils to trace the main elements of the mural and outlining the background using the computer-generated measurements. Then came the color.
Lyons spent days on the scaffolding, filling the walls with layers of blue and green and tangerine. One man brought her dinner, and passersby stopped to watch her while she worked. Some people would yell “Good job!” from the sidewalk; others would offer a thumb’s up from across the street.
“One guy told us that he had been watching out for the mural, and had put the word out not to disrespect the art,” she said.
Nobody disrespected the art: Things like that really touched her. Mountain View holds a special place in her heart, she says. She wanted to make a mural that fit the neighborhood around it.
From the new housing development across the street, Dana Andrews has a direct line of sight to the repainted Hispanic Cultural Center wall. He watched the mural take shape in passing; work takes up most of his days. And while he says he doesn’t know much about art, he knows about chess, which gives him an appreciation for things that take patience and time. The mural across the street looks like it required both.
“I think you have to be very creative to do that,” he said.
Lyons’ work is shaped by the world around her.
Raised in Anchorage with roots in Kodiak, she received a degree from Whitman College in Washington and spent 18 years living in Chile, where she studied at the Escuela de Bellas Artes de Vina del Mar. Her artistic career runs the gamut.
Her dreamy, ethereal landscape paintings and stark, vivid photographs have appeared everywhere from the Anchorage Museum, the International Gallery of Contemporary Art and Out North to Stephan’s Fine Art Gallery, the Bunnell Art Center in Homer and the Wells Street Art Center in Fairbanks. She’s taught art at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Juneau’s Canvas Community Art Center, the Anchorage Museum, grade schools around the state and her own studio in Mountain View.
Lyons’ work has taken her to the far corners of Alaska, the Lower 48 and Europe: She’s completed artist residencies at the Stikine River Bird Festival in Wrangell, Denali National Park, Munich, Germany and Santa Fe, New Mexico. While she finds inspiration in travel, Mountain View has served as her home base for about three years now.
Her studio is tucked into the back corner of a commercial building across from Clark Middle School. She shares the suite of studios with a handful of other artists, including Alaska Native maskmakers Perry Eaton and Drew Michael. Adjacent the parking lot is an empty lot; on the other side of the building, Alaska Regional Hospital is preparing to open a new primary care clinic.
The inside of the workspace Lyons shares with her husband is cozy and inviting. The paintings that line the walls depict tranquil landscapes in soothing, subtle palettes, and a deep, soft couch is pushed against the wall. The studio hosts regular open gallery events, classes and a stream of original work. Here, Lyons feels at home.
“I spend a lot of time walking around Mountain View,” she said. “It almost feels like I’m in a different little town; I’m in a distinct community.”
She leases the studio space from the Anchorage Community Land Trust, the nonprofit community development organization that owns the building. When she told ACLT she was interested in pursuing some kind of neighborhood art project, the organization began looking for money to make it happen, ultimately receiving a $10,000 grant from the Atwood Foundation. Lyons says she painted the mural for less than half the cost of similar projects — the work on the Hispanic Cultural Center was a true labor of love.
A summer artist residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute set the mural timeline back a few months. Lyons made plans to paint in September. She knew time would be tight.
“People were saying, ‘Are you sure? The weather’s gonna turn on you,’” she said.
But worked on the painting crew for the feature film “Big Miracle” taught her a thing or two about painting outdoors. They’d painted exterior sets while the snow flew. Lyons knew it could be done, as long as your paint didn’t freeze and you were dressed well. And if you could avoid rain long enough to put paint on the wall, it would dry quickly and the mural would be unharmed.
Thinking about the design took time. Lyons looked through some of her older paintings and found a lot of flowers and birds – images that seemed to disappear in her more recent work. The summer spent in Santa Fe provided its own inspiration.
In New Mexico, the rock formations and thunderstorms were a stark contrast to the familiar Alaska landscape. Santa Fe was filled with hummingbirds. One day, Lyons paid a visit to Ghost Ranch, Georgia O’Keeffe’s summer home. There, she was hiking through the desert when a lone hummingbird appeared out of nowhere and seemed to hover over her head.
“So I thought that was a sign,” Lyons said.
Alaska has a hummingbird of its own, she learned.
The rufous hummingbird is known for its vast migration, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. While the bird’s body weighs only a few grams — less than two pennies — it flies from its wintering grounds in Mexico and the southern United States to breeding grounds in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Canada and southern Alaska. It breeds further north than any other hummingbird, and it travels farther than many birds 10 times its size.
Fueling the marathon journey takes a combination of food sources. The diminutive rufous depends on plant nectar, small insects and wells drilled in trees. Over the course of a year, the bird pollinates flowers across state lines and thousands of miles of terrain, playing an important role in plant reproduction, according to the USFWS. The rufous young learn to fly within 15 days of birth.
The birds are golden bronze. Both males and females have a white spot behind their eye, and the male birds have a vibrant copper or green throat patch. Lyons used the hummingbirds as inspiration for her Mountain View mural.
They were some of the first things Janell Moody noticed as she walked by the completed mural one rainy Sunday afternoon. Living in Mountain View, Moody goes by the cultural center often. She noticed the scaffolding cover the eastern wall last month. The next time she passed, the scaffolding was down and the artists were posing for pictures in front of the giant painting. The excitement was contagious.
The mural adds a pop of color to a sometimes-dreary stretch of road, Moody says.
“I think it’s friggin’ beautiful,” she said, stepping back from the sidewalk to admire the scene. “It reminds me of my hometown; Tuscon, Arizona.”
The browns and reds and purples remind her of the desert, and the orange flower with the skinny, spiked petals reminds her of palm trees and the south. She misses that place, she says, and she’s doing everything she can to get back. In a way, the mural is like a portal to home.
“It just looks so friendly,” she said. “When it’s snowing outside, it’s going to look amazing. It’s going to stick out. People will look at it and get a warm feeling.”
That’s exactly what Lyons hoped to do.
She says she imagined the mural as something stimulating, yet calming and meditative — something that would have the same effect on the neighborhood around it. She plans on staying and working in Mountain View well into the future, and she says she hopes to create even more public art for the spaces that surround her.
“I just love it here,” she said.
Paint may fade with time, but creativity and a passion for place can leave an indelible mark.