New visitor center showcases Juneau's artistic strengths

Arts-minded locals who have become accustomed to avoiding the south end of Franklin Street have recently been given a good reason to venture down into the tourist zone. Three good reasons, in fact: The first is the new Juneau Visitor Center, designed by local architect Joann Lott, and the second and third are the two recently installed public art pieces that stand on either side of the building, created by local artists Arnie Weimer and Lisa Rickey.


Though designed for visitors, the building and its art pieces hold plenty of interest for those of us who live here, offering strong examples of locally created public art, and working together to add considerable aesthetic value to one of our city’s main thoroughfares.

The visitor center, which opened in June and is operated by the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau, is unlike any of the other buildings in the area – or in the city. Port Engineer Gary Gillette said this was the city’s intention from the beginning, adding that the building is so far back from the road, it didn’t need to conform to historical district design standards.

“We’re really pleased with it,” he said. “It’s very different, and unique, and that’s what we were looking for, something that would attract attention and that people would want to check out.”

One of the unusual aspects is the bright and varied color of the building. Created from specially treated iridescent stainless steel shingles, the structure changes color depending on where you are standing, passing through reddish-purple and indigo into teal and turquoise. The overall effect is reminiscent of fish scales, Gillette said, in keeping with the maritime theme of the entire project. Others might see a connection to the changing colors of the aurora borealis.

On the inside, a soaring ceiling and curved wooden beams mimic the feeling of a boat’s interior.

“We designed the building around an upside down ship’s hull,” said architect Lott of local firm Jensen Yorba Lott, adding that the large window in the front also references the transom of a boat. “It was a very fun project.”

The maritime theme carries over to the two outdoor art pieces created by local artists Weimer and Rickey. Installed earlier this month, the art was funded by the city's Percent for Art program, which stipulates that 1 percent of the construction costs of city-built projects go toward the acquisition and installation of public art. (The state has a similar statute, passed by the Legislature in 1975, that applies to state buildings.) Weimer and Rickey were selected by a six-person committee which included members of the harbor board and Juneau Arts & Humanities Council, a customs agent and JCVB’s Lorraine Palmer. Gillette, who served as unofficial moderator and the city’s representative, said the art selection committee liked both Weimer’s and Rickey’s proposals, and approached them about sharing the commission. Each artist worked on their art pieces independently of one another.

Weimer said that though he was encouraged to stick with a maritime theme, he was given a lot of freedom to determine the particulars of the piece.

“I gave them some sketches and painting of breaching whales and fishermen and they just told me to go at it,” he said.

Weimer’s piece, a 12-by-6 foot mural called “Light Play,” sits on the south side of the building, on the back of a large “welcome to Juneau” sign that was part of the original plan.

“JCVB basically told us that one of the most-asked questions they get is, ‘Is there a sign that says Juneau, Alaska that we can take a picture in front of so we can prove we were here?’.” Gillette said. “So we thought that would be a great thing to do, and the mural on the back came through the art process. Arnie saw that as an opportunity.”

The mural’s main focus is a fisherman on the water in a hand troller with the Chilkats in the background. Weimer, a former fisherman himself, modeled the painting’s fisherman after a friend, Butch Laiti, and the boat after a Sitka-based vessel called “Fool’s Gold.”

“It went through all kinds of gyrations, like most of my work does,” Weimer said. “I had originally painted someone else into the boat, and then Butch presented himself and I thought it would be more fun to have somebody who was actually a local fisherman.”

The painting also shows Sentinel Lighthouse, a decision influenced by Gillette, who is one of the people who helps care-take the lighthouse with his wife Renee Hughes through the Gastineau Channel Historical Society.

One of the distinctive aspects of the work is the segments of light that create color fields across the length of the piece, an element partially inspired by the work of American expressionist painter Lyonel Charles Feininger, Weimer said, and one Weimer has used before.

“I look at it more as an abstract painting about light, more than anything,” he said. “It was kind of semi-coincidental that the fish scale light coming down sort of matches the building, there’s a little resonance there -- and in the colors. I checked with them before I started painting about what colors they were going to use. I wanted it to fit the environment.”

In the past Weimer has created many other public art pieces, the most visible of which is the giant 96-foot-long mural at the corner of Second and Franklin Streets downtown. That mural is more of a surreal piece, Weimer said, incorporating ideas about history and culture, whereas with the new mural he was focused primarily on the overall aesthetic.

The mural is actually a high-resolution digital photograph of the original painting. The photo was shot by local photographer John Hyde and mounted on Dibond, a composite material designed to be impervious to the elements. The original painting was done in acrylic on masonite and designed as a four part screen, but Weimer decided the finished mural, framed by Mark Halstead, looked better as a single piece.

Weimer said he is very pleased with the way his piece came out.

“I love it. I put my soul into it,” he said.

On the other side of the building is Rickey’s steel sculpture, “Jardin de la Mer” (Garden of the Sea). It was modeled on bull kelp as seen from underwater, and is made of gently curving steel strips which create a sense of lightness and motion.

“I studied kelp and seaweed and their shapes,” Rickey said. “I was just trying to capture what it looks like underwater – it’s so beautiful and most people don’t get to see it like that, they see it on the beach.... but this way you can kind of see what it might be like (in the water).”

Rickey previously designed a kelp sculpture for the SeaLife Center in Seward.

Another element of the sculpture is a series of sea urchins, also stainless steel, in bright colors such as purple that are echoed in the coloring of the building.

Rickey said in designing her piece she was inspired by the colored coating on the stainless steel used for the building, and requested samples of the material. Her sculpture is also made of stainless steel.

“I work in steel and I use stainless because I don’t want there to be even a hint of rust on this piece,” she said.

The sculpture sits on top of four concrete pillars of different heights, surrounded by plants.

Rickey completed the design in her studio and then brought it down to the site for a trial installation before sending it down to Seattle, where it was given the colored coating. Part of the installation process involved welding long metal rods to the bottom of the piece that were inserted into holes drilled into the concrete plinths.

The actual installation was done a couple weeks ago, over the course of one very long, very hot day, with curious tourists milling around.

“The installation is always the hardest part,” Rickey said with a laugh.

Rickey, who works full time at the Department of Law, recently received her masters in sculpture from the University of Washington. She got her bachelors at UAS, and as a student created a metal sculpture of ravens for the courtyard at Egan Library. She also recently installed raven sculptures at Harborview Elementary School.

Rickey said in working on the visitor center project she is very grateful to Sherman Johnson at Acme welding for his help with the project, as well as Tim O’Donnell and friend Liz Dodd and her sister Allison Fargnoli.

Overall Rickey said she’s very pleased with the way her piece came out and for the opportunity to create public art in her home city.

“It’s in Juneau, it’s where we live and I’m proud to have something here,” she said.

Those who don’t want to brave the current tourist crowds to see this three-part artistic work can of course wait until fall for their viewing; though the building itself might be closed at that point, both art pieces are outdoor works designed to weather the elements and the passage of time, viewable in any season.


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