If you’re acquainted with any kids who go to Mendenhall River Community School, or their parents, you’ve probably heard them talk about the new mural in their school library. If so, you probably pictured a blocky, book-themed construction-paper mural roughly stapled to the wall — the kind of thing that’s pretty typical in many elementary school libraries.
This is not that mural.
Meticulously designed and executed by two school staff members, Lavair Swingle and Darcie Seibel, the dog-sled themed mural at Mendenhall River is nothing less than a work of art. From its delicately feathered evergreen trees, to the perfectly placed indigo shadows on the snowy mountains, to the lolling pink fabric tongues on the sled dogs, the mural elevates the form in a way that must be seen to be appreciated.
The two women, who both work at the school as para-educators, put in many hours on the project, all on their own time — after school, on weekends and over spring break. They can’t say just how long it took, but they began the project in January and finished just this week, working on it nearly every day during that time. Some nights they stayed at the school until 9 p.m., and a few weekend days they clocked 8 hour days.
Librarian Kris Coffee said when she first saw the completed work, she was stunned.
“When I walked into the library and saw it finished, I started to cry,“ Coffee said. “It looked so amazing. It just blew me away! They have given the school a wonderful gift.”
The women have teamed up to create art for the school in the past. Their first project, which they began about three years ago soon after they started working together, was a countdown-to-summer paper mural in which the remaining days of the year were depicted as kites that flew off toward the trees one by one. The mural, like most of their early pieces, was not designed to last, and it was eventually taken down.
After that they collaborated on a few more, most recently a Christmas countdown paper mural of skaters and last season’s summer countdown mural showing a family fishing for salmon. Because of their popularity throughout the school, both of these murals are still up in the hallways, showing a bit of wear but still largely intact.
But unlike the hallway murals, the library mural is built to last, and is by far their most complex piece. The background pieces — mountains, trees, snow — are made of heavy paper, and the animated pieces — the musher and his dogs — are constructed of layers of fabric. The women were inspired to use fabric after thinking about what would work best for the dogs’ fur, eventually deciding to create a coat with faux fur trim for the musher as well.
Elements were glued with glue stick and hot glue and in some cases also stapled with a heavy-duty stapler. Also adding to its durability, is the fact that it’s located high off the ground above a row of book shelves, out of reach of curious hands. The women worked on it on ladders, or put elements together on the library tables before attaching them to the wall.
Seibel suggested the image of a dog sled after thinking about what would work in the unusually shaped space, which is long and narrow and roughly triangular. Swingle, an artist who paints and draws, made up an initial sketch.
“I made a sketch and we looked at it and tweaked it here and there, and from there we gathered our materials, decided what would work best for certain things and then just went ahead,” Swingle said.
“For all of our murals we kind of come up with an idea or a theme and then we just build it as we go,” Seibel said.
They referred to books and photographs in designing the harnesses and sled, but for the most part worked from their imaginations.
Neither of the women had done paper art before doing their first mural three years ago, but both have an avid interest in art, especially Swingle, who is preparing to switch her focus to art full time. Friday is her last day at the school.
“I really, really enjoy doing stuff like this, it’s a passion,” Swingle said. “I just love creating things.”
Swingle, who is primarily a painter, said her next step is to get some work into Juneau galleries and stores, and maybe to set up a booth at Public Market.
For Seibel, art is a great motivator, and something she usually tries to work into her activities with the students.
“I’m not a professional artist but I have always been motivated by art and I’ve dabbled in all kinds of different things,” Seibel said.
The women said part of the fun of the creative process in doing the murals has been the collaborative aspect.
“We have a lot of fun doing it, and we mesh very well,” Seibel said.
“We continually balance ideas off each other and when we pull it together and agree on something, it comes together very nicely,” Swingle said.
Another rewarding aspect of the murals has been seeing the reactions from the kids, the women said. For a long time the kids had no idea what the main image of the library mural would be, as the women worked on the mountains and the trees. Over a weekend last month, they put the sled up, working a couple of a long days to get most of it on the wall for the kids to see Monday morning.
“The most fun part or the most rewarding part, I think, and Lavair probably agrees, is when you hear the chitter chatter from all the kids, when they come in and see new pieces up on the wall. Everybody is so excited,” Seibel said.
Now that Swingle is leaving the school, the women won’t have as many opportunities to work on collaborative art — but they’re not ruling out more murals or public projects.
“We’ll just have to see where it goes from here,” Swingle said.