Group brings street art to Juneau's First Friday scene

A man with a paintbrush, a toddler with a crayon, and a woman with a can of spray paint pose in front of canvases, apparently putting the final touches on their paintings. These life-size sculptures of artists at work, made of rebar wrapped in chicken wire wrapped in “industrial papier-mâché,” are the work of local artist Joshua Ray Reeder.

The actual artists of the canvases — including an actual toddler — mill around the courtyard of Pocket Park, joined by a revolving crowd of passers-by drawn to the unconventional art show during the August First Friday gallery walk.

Reeder’s “guerrilla gallery” sprang up at about 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 5, when the group of artists pulled up in a moving van at the corner of Franklin and Front Streets. Reeder didn’t think they needed a permit to mount their show, but he was still more nervous than he’d ever been before. In about five minutes, they’d unloaded and set up six canvases and four sculptures in the park. Immediately, people started showing up.

It’s difficult for young artists to get gallery space in Juneau, said Reeder, who plans to graduate this fall with an art degree from the University of Alaska Southeast — and besides, he wanted to challenge the way we view contemporary art. So he tried to think of something as far opposed to a gallery as possible, a counterpoint to white walls that could draw in people who wouldn’t normally go to an art show.

He’d made a couple of human sculptures for one of his classes at UAS and wanted to find a way to display them. One of his professors encouraged him to apply for a creative research grant through the university, which he ended up getting. His research revolved largely around street art, a scene he doesn’t think is as developed in Juneau as elsewhere.

Back in Ohio, where Reeder grew up, he remembers seeing trains painted with elaborate spray-paint murals. He thinks there is a world of difference between this type of art and people who spray-paint their initials on walls.

“I’m really in favor of creating a graffiti park (in Juneau),” he said. “That’s really the best way to stop vandalism graffiti, to allow people to take their time and do good work.”

In the meantime, the “guerrilla gallery” project gave several local artists the opportunity to produce good work. Reeder built canvases and loaned them out to a handful of young artists — some university students, some street artists — whose work he admired. He gave no instructions, hoping to get a variety of different styles.

Envisioning a family show, he thought of how kids might get involved. And what better way to give people a new way of thinking about graffiti than involving finger paint and crayons?

“If you tell me as a kid you never wrote on a wall with a crayon, then you’re lying,” he said.

At the back of the show, the toddler sculpture faces a canvas covered in finger paint, the work of the son of Reeder’s friend Mark Sebastian, whom the two taught to paint for the show. Paint is splattered on the surrounding pavement. At one point, a young girl slowly approaches the toddler sculpture and taps it on the shoulder.

By Reeder’s estimates, around 600 or 700 people stopped by the show in less than six hours. Visitors told him two things over and over again: That this was the best use of the park they’d seen, and that they didn’t usually go to art shows but they liked this. This was exactly what he’d hoped for, he said.

At 9 p.m., after many of the artists had retired for a celebratory drink across the street, they took the show down, leaving little trace beyond a bit of finger paint lightly coloring the fountain.

• Katie Spielberger may be reached at katie.spielberger@capweek.com.

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