School gets wild

Artist's mural brings lessor-known creatures of region to hallways

Posted: Thursday, August 10, 2000

A herd of deer has moved into Riverbend Elementary School.

The deer are joined by a flock of swans and a colony of beaver. Artist Jane Terzis hopes they'll stay for the next 50 years.

Terzis painted the animals as an enormous mural -- 19 inches high and 270 feet long -- that depicts them in their Southeast Alaska habitats. Almost eight feet off the floor, the long, narrow painting decorates the juncture of Riverbend's three main hallways.

The hallways are visually identical. Kindergarten and first-grade teacher Mimi Walker said it was extremely confusing for students to orient themselves, especially at the beginning of the school year. Now they know where to find their classes -- in the beaver hall, the deer hall or the swan hallway.

``Even for teachers that worked there, you would go down a wing and come out of it and stand there wondering where you were. They look exactly the same,'' she said.

Teacher Brenda Weaver also appreciates the new distinctiveness.

``Now it's different,'' she said. ``It's great to come in and have color after two years of teaching here.''

Terzis, a Juneau fine artist and graphic designer, spent nine months working on the project. After carefully triple-measuring the hallways, she painted 45 separate panels to complete the mural. She installed it last week at the school.


Terzis wanted to feature Southeast wildlife and figured Alaska's wolves, bears and eagles had enough publicity.

``I chose three creatures that live here, but you don't see them very often. And they're not predators,'' she said.

She learned after she started that the beaver is the school mascot.

``I love beavers. They're very secretive,'' she said. ``And swans are so beautiful. I got excited about seeing the flocks overhead last year.''

All three animals are secretive, so shy that in spite of her visits to prime habitat, she wasn't able to observe them first-hand as much as she hoped to. She watched videos, looked at photographs and drawings and read about the animals, studying the way they're built, what they eat, how they move and raise their young. All that was incorporated into her painting.

``It was great for me,'' she said. ``It was a very satisfying project.''

She learned that baby swans are called cygnets, males are called cobs and females are called penns. The swans also were a good experience for her as an artist.

``I wanted the challenge of painting that much white, to see how much color I could get into the white,'' she said.

The painting is part of the state's One Percent for Art program, which funds art in new public buildings.

Walker was also part of the selection committee for the project. She said they reviewed many submissions and selected three art projects for the school.

Pacific Northwest artist Charlie Bigger worked with 200 Riverbend families over four weeks to create a set of more than 200 ceramic tiles that decorate the school library. The tiles were designed and made by the students and their families.

Stained glass artist Vivian McConnell, an East Coast artist who operates a studio in Southcentral Alaska, created a set of stained glass windows, also for the library. The total cost of the three projects was about $80,000, Walker said.

Terzis surveyed the completed mural this week and said it's satisfying to create something lasting.

``The school I went to didn't have any artwork in it, and I know something like this would've moved me,'' she said.

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