A new art installation adorning the face of Mountain View Elementary School celebrates local heritage with rainbow colors and familiar shapes. “Metamorphosis” draws on layered elements of culture and place — from images of flora and fauna to designs inspired by traditional tattoos.
It’s the work of Alaskans Holly Mititquq Nordlum and Sheila Wyne. Nordlum is an Inupiaq artist widely recognized for her multimedia design and traditional tattoo work; Wyne is a prolific creator whose pieces range from public and wearable art to studio work and other installations. In Mountain View, they worked together to reflect the neighborhood’s unique Alaska environment.
They discussed the project in separate interviews, edited for clarity and length below.
Mountain View Post: What first drew you to this project at the Mountain View Elementary School?
Sheila Wyne: “Initially I wasn’t going to apply for it at all. I didn’t feel that I was the person to pursue it on my own, because it’s such a multicultural community, and they needed to have voices from other groups within the community.
Then Holly reached out to me. She and I had put in a proposal (for work) in Kotzebue maybe a couple years prior; we got to know each other pretty well. So when Holly approached me about this, it was like, ‘Yeah, that would work!’ She’s got a really strong Indigenous perspective, and I’ve got background in terms of how to make it happen. And so we threw in together and put out a proposal.”
Holly Mititquq Nordlum: “It’s been many years in the making.
My goal with public art here in Anchorage — if it’s not an Inuit or Inupiaq building or organization — I’m using public art as a land acknowledgment to recognize the people that were here before us. Because in reality, I’m also a colonizer of the Dena’ina people. So you’re recognizing them in the public art I do here. Inherently it’s Inupiaq work because I’m doing it, but they tell Dena’ina stories, and tell the story of the place we’re at.”
MVP: What was that process like here in Mountain View? What elements went into the final artwork we see today?
HMN: “We had a lot of time to really hash it out and sit with it.
I’m very open about how I feel about the word diversity. This was Dena’ina land. Dena’ina people lived here thousands and thousands of years. Anchorage has only been here a hundred years; Anchorage is a young, young city. Diversity — for Native people — is another form of erasure, right? It’s a way to celebrate something other than us, the real people of here. And that’s hard for me, these trendy movements, and how we celebrate cities.
It’s our responsibility as artists and people to celebrate the real difference here.
With the Mountain View project, I was working with Project K’il, which is a Native student after-school program (in the Anchorage School District), and we did mock-up solutions to the problem, like, ‘How do we recognize Dena’ina people, and the place we’re at? And let’s talk about Dena’ina people, and then let’s talk about the animals here and the plants here.’ Most of the kids are right at second, third grade, and there were just the cutest little drawings.
So that’s what we had proposed — working with the community, and eastside, to recognize Dena’ina people, and use the youth to inspire us. That’s where we started, Sheila and I.”
SW: “We went over to the Anchorage Museum, into the Smithsonian section, which has all these different Native cultures, beadwork and various articles of clothing; just really getting into the minutia of how various cultures stylized themselves for generations.
I was really fascinated by certain types of tattoos and markings, and when we saw the outside facade, and where it would go, it’s like, ‘Oh, we should kind of think of an architectural tattoo,’ something that would reference — to certain degrees — certain cultural elements, but would be on the scale for the building, versus for a person.”
HMN: “Dena’ina, Inupiaq, the vikings — any tribal group way back has had tattooing — so in speaking about diversity and how to celebrate everybody, not alienate, but speak about place, and kind of combining all that, and then using the kid’s drawings. The kid’s drawings were really inspiring. We took these ideas and layered them all in.
If you look just at the entryway, it has that tattoo feel that kind of is universal, in all kinds of things, too — it has that shape of tattooing, but also bead patterns and sewing patterns and so many things right in the center there that kind of radiate out to these negative spaces.”
SW: “We morphed through quite a bit of that. Holly has certain shapes that she uses in her design work, and then I just got really interested in negative shapes — whether that was flora, or fauna, fish, or bird shapes, that sort of thing. So it would be really tied, in a sense, to the building. The building kind of became part of it, by using negative shapes.
The rainbow effect that (the piece) has — you go from almost sun/sky colors, then into the bird silhouettes, then the flora and the things that grow, the greens and turquoises of landscapes, and then moving on into the water and ocean references — we wanted to cover the landscape in that regard, but the rainbow effect also for me is a visual of just how many different cultures are housed behind this facade.
I think it’s really important — at least it is for me, in public art — to try to provide something for a site, and community, that will continue to give. That you’ll notice new things, or you’ll suddenly see it in a different way. I like work that layers in that way.”
MVP: What do you hope this piece will bring to the space long-term?
HMN: “Maybe it will get the school talking about the Dena’ina.
Also Anchorage is a young city, and it has a strip mall feel to it. We need big projects like this to make it special and to distinguish it from other places.
I hope this is a baby step to something bigger. We were in Iceland going to Greenland two years ago, and on the main street, right in front of the whole town, is a huge statue. I can’t stop thinking how I want that for Anchorage, and for it to be Dena’ina. Something large and celebratory of their people.
I want people to come here to see a significant Dena’ina presence.
That’s what I hope for these projects, all of them: is that we start to change the way that our leaders, that our people think about Alaska.”