Anchorage-based photographer Kevin Smith caught up with Alaska Stock’s Mollie Foster this week to chat about his Village Mural School Projects. Smith is a globally recognized architectural photographer, who also specializes in art installations featuring Alaskan themes. Read the conversation in our first Photographer Q & A, posted the second Monday of each month.
KS: I shoot a lot of architectural photography. An architecture friend approached me about a “hall of elders” concept, and I came up with the idea for a large format mural. That was back in 2004, and through word of mouth it’s just taken off from there.
MF: Where are the murals you’ve done?
KS: In schools in villages across Alaska: Akiak, Akiachak, Tuluksak, Noatak, Deering, Shungnak, Kalskag, Ruby and Anaktuvuk Pass. In addition to murals for the Anchorage fire station # 4, Machetanz Elementary School in Palmer and the Harry J. MacDonald Center in Eagle River.
MF: What’s the process for creating a mural?
KS: For the murals in remote villages, I go and check out the architectural space of the building. There are different ways to apply graphic images to a space, so I see what works well in each space. I gather information from the community, who the important people are, get a list of the elders. Then I gather images, shooting my own, scanning historical photos or outsourcing stock to get as complete a picture of the village as I can. I try to visit during all four seasons if I can, and show the village activities: subsistence lifestyle, elder portraits, and scenic shots, among others. Then I combine the images in Photoshop, creating one big file with hundreds of layers. Then I take the file to a local print shop Graphic Works, to have it produced.
KS: The point is to tell the community story, each village has its unique history, culture and activities that they do. It’s a balance between telling the story and including the right pieces to give an accurate historical report of the village that is artistically pleasing at the same time. My wish is that the artwork makes people proud of where they live and the culture they have.
MF: How does the community react?
KS: Folks love it. It’s all about their culture, the people and the way of life. It’s about making the elders their heroes. Why should Batman or Superman be their hero? It should be Uncle Joe or Grandpa Dick working their fish camps. That’s what the idea is all about. I’ve been told that once the mural is up, the kids behave better. Like, there’s Grandpa Joe and he’s watching me. The mural takes an empty space and gives it personality, which is pretty fun.
MF: How long do they take to create from start to finish?
KS: Between trips to the village during all four seasons, research and the work on the computer, projects can take anywhere between 3-4 months to 2 years.
KS: These projects are paid for by State of Alaska Percent for Art program. In urban areas, one percent of building costs has to be spent on art, in rural areas half a percent is spent on art.
MF: Any advice for photographers interested in this type of work?
KS: For doing village work, you have to have an easy-going personality and be able to roll with punches. You can’t get uptight about things that don’t happen like you’d expect them to. That and…get a really comfortable chair (for spending a lot of time in front of the computer).
MF: What’s the next project on your plate?
KS: The Top of the World hotel in Barrow, and the school in Kobuk. They should be done in the next few months.
— By Mollie Foster