Most Juneau residents spent the last weekend in February trying to avoid the hurricane-force winds blowing through town. Ryan Cortes Perez figured it would be a good time to put up his new art installation on Sandy Beach.
Walking on Sandy Beach in 70-mile-per-hour gusts, known locally as the Taku winds, is, well, no walk on the beach. Your feet sink two feet into sand as if post-holing in snow, and it’s hard to keep your balance. The howling winds dominate any conversation.
But listen closely and you’ll hear a percussive accompaniment: Ryan’s “Taku wind chimes,” perhaps the only installation art piece in Juneau right now.
The “chimes” are 100-pound spruce logs suspended from a steel cable strung between two of the old pilings on the beach.
A drummer himself, Ryan loves the soft wooden “clonk” as the wind moves the logs “as if they were toothpicks.”
“Who would have thought that the wind would be such a percussionist!” he said.
Ryan, an art student at the University of Alaska Southeast, envisioned the Taku wind chimes for a class project. His sculpture professor Pedar Dalthrop encouraged him to pursue it, and wouldn’t let him think of downsizing it.
Next, Ryan approached Environmental Science Professor Eran Hood.
“I was like, ‘Eran, where do the Taku Winds harness all their energy? Where are they holding all their mojo?’”
The answer: Sandy Beach. Ryan came out with a tape measure and found the thickest pilings to hang the chimes from.
Ryan doesn’t like spending money on his projects — finding the materials around town is part of the fun of the project, he said, and gets more people involved. He borrowed the spruce logs from the firewood stash of family friend Harry Tullis. After searching all around town in vain for the right steel cable, Ryan ran into a man he knows only as “Dave the knife maker” who had exactly what he needed, buried under piles of snow in the back of his truck.
On the Saturday of installation, with the help of his friend he calls “Chavez the day laborer,” Ryan hauled the nine 100-pound spruce logs about half a mile from the parking lot to the project site.
“Which doesn’t sound like much,” he said. “I mean, most people could lift a hundred pounds or so — but during a wind storm?”
He and Chavez laughed about the undertaking at first, but five minutes into the walk, their laughter turned to “dead silence” as they braced themselves against the wind. Still, “every once in while we’d just start laughing at it, about how crazy it was,” Ryan said.
Relaxing on the couch that evening, after spending seven hours putting up the project, Ryan turned to Chavez.
“Do you kind of miss being out there?” he asked. Neither one could stop thinking about the chimes.
The following Wednesday, with hurricane-force winds blowing down Gastineau Channel, Ryan gamely agreed to show off his project.
“It’s so nice out here,” he said, smiling as the wind surged past his bright red cheeks. He was wearing only a baseball hat on his head. “Well, even though it’s freakin’ freezing.”
Ryan, who is from Puerto Rico, marveled at the waves, quite a bit choppier than usual.
“I almost wanna just go surfing,” he said, sounding almost serious when he added, “I’m gonna go grab my board.”
Ryan lived in Juneau briefly as a child when his father was stationed here with the Coast Guard. He moved to Nashville for college, where he started studying music business management, but he stopped when it became too much about business and not enough about music, which Ryan said, “didn’t seem fun for me.”
When his mother suggested he move back to Juneau, he decided to give it a try and enrolled at UAS, where he’s delighted with the support he has had for his art (he is also a photographer).
“I think without this move I wouldn’t be this deep into art,” he said. “They way I perceive a lot of different things has changed since I moved to Alaska. Everything’s original, everything’s authentic. You’re out in the wild, you’re not in this materialistic world.”
His first large-scale sculpture project, which he created last year, was a bicycle-powered music box.
“I’ve never felt such a part of a functional machine,” he said.
Word of Ryan’s “Taku Wind Chimes” blew around town after its installation, and everyone from kids to his professors complimented him on it.
“I’ve never had a project of mine received so well by such a wide range of people,” he said. “I don’t even feel like it’s my project... It’s like the whole community came together for this.”
He posted a video of the chimes online, receiving hundreds of daily views, but he’s still hoping to see more people coming out to see the chimes in person. He recalls one person who drove over to Sandy Beach to look at the installation, but then didn’t get out of his car.
Ryan’s own van was wobbling in the wind as he related this, and he thought he saw the Subaru parked next to him get shifted over in the wind.
“I think the full experience will be had by those who get out in it,” he said. “That’s the best way to appreciate it — and the wind.”
He hopes he can keep the chimes up for a while so that more people can see them, “and think about the wildness and the power of Juneau’s rugged climate.”
Meanwhile, he’s got a few ideas for new projects on the drawing board.
Watching the waves crash on Sandy Beach, he mused, “The tide’s just waiting for something to be installed in it.”
Watch a video of the Taku Wind Chimes installation online at vimeo.com/20484706.
• Contact Katie Spielberger at email@example.com.