by Brian Wright for Seward City News-
Seward: ocean-side hamlet of 2,500, ninth most productive fishery in the United States, host of one of the oldest mountain races in the world, and mural capital of Alaska.
Coloring the walls and brightening the bricks of buildings throughout town, Seward’s impressive mural collection brings important cultural complexity to the area. Myriad depictions by locally and regionally renowned artists celebrate the town’s natural beauty, ecologic diversity and unique history.
These murals tell the story of Seward, a story that many visitors to this small town overlook. Seward resident and creator of several of these wall-covering works, Justine Pechuzal, recently launched The Painted Whale, a tour company that allows culture-minded citizens and visitors to explore efforts by talented artists to unearth the narratives that make this region unique. With a B.A. in Art History and Creative Writing as well as a Master’s in Art Education, Pechuzal’s background lends strength to her voice as she describes the murals, their thematic elements, and the history boiled into their creation.
While many pass beneath these murals with admiration, Pechuzal’s knowledge and knack for engaging exposition reveal a much more textured view of each piece. One example is the “The Irresistible Story,” the large mural that graces the southern façade of the library, overlooking the garden and facing Resurrection Bay.
This incredible mural, painted in 2013 by Nicole Feemster, explores the notion of storytelling in its various guises, from oral histories passed from one generation to the next around campfires to infamous tall tales woven by local fishermen. The mural flows like a narrative stream from the warm tones enveloping the fire to the cool hues of a forest tableau. Throughout the mural, listeners of every ilk are held enrapt by the telling of these stories: humans smiling as they huddle around the fire and animals emerging from the forest with eyes alert and ears erect. Even William Seward, namesake of the town who brokered the Alaska Purchase in 1867 from the Russians, peeks his prominent nose from around a tree in the background to eavesdrop.
Another mural that celebrates Seward’s vibrant history is “Postcards of the Past.” Created in 1999 by Jennifer Headtke and Jeannie Shirk, “Postcards” is the oldest mural in town. The massive mural literally portrays the history of the region in a series of photographs, most of which were unearthed from the library archives. Depicted are scenes that capture early homesteading life by pioneers such as the Lowell family, and early historical moments such as the 1792 Russian arrival in Resurrection Bay.
Other intriguing and informational murals on the tour include “Our Flag Flies in Washington,” a 2009 creation by Dot Bardarson that commemorates the inception of the Alaska state flag in 1927 by 13-year-old Seward resident Benny Benson, and the “Seward Statehood Mural,” which was a 2009 piece by Pechuzal that tackles several iconographic images related to Resurrection Bay, the city of Seward and Alaska as a whole.
Pechuzal’s walking tours provide not just a celebration of the accomplishments of these worthy artists, but a detailed history lesson of a vibrant chapter in American history via its most rugged state.
“I had no pre-existing framework,” said Pechuzal when asked about the inception of her walking tours. “I’m developing it as I go.”
The hour-and-a-half tours take art and history lovers on a circular exploration of downtown Seward, visiting these rich works in several locations throughout the city. Pechuzal currently operates tours every day except for Saturday for $15 plus tax. For more information or to book your walking tour, visit the company’s website at www.sewardmurals.com.
One dollar out of every tour fee goes toward the Seward Mural Society, an organization which fosters visual and community art. Ever since 1999 this group of local artists has banded together with a mission to “mentor adult and young artists, beautify and educate the community, and contribute to Seward economy by enhancing cultural tourism.” Seward was officially designated “the Mural Capital of Alaska” in 2008. Each fall the Society sponsors/organizes the creation of a mural, which will be painted in the library basement this year. For more information about the Mural Society and the murals themselves (including a photo gallery) visit their blog at sewardmuralsociety.blogspot.com.