Artists assemble glass mural for Anchorage convention center

Stained glass hanging depicts life of Dena'ina people near Cook Inlet

Posted: Tuesday, September 23, 2008

FAIRBANKS - Head bent low, Patricia Frison carefully applied a narrow band of copper foil around a small piece of colored glass in the Expressions in Glass studio Friday afternoon, smoothing it gently into position with her fingertips.

Sam Harrel / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
Sam Harrel / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

The tedious but important application is just one of many steps needed to ensure each piece of colorful glass - more than 4,000 and counting - that make up "A Dena'ina Day Around Cook Inlet" fit into place artistically and physically.

The multihued artwork, designed and constructed in Fairbanks, will soon grace the new Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center in downtown Anchorage.

Athabascan artist James Grant received the One Percent for Art commission in fall 2007, and has been constructing the installation in concert with Expressions in Glass owner Debbie Mathews and her staff.

When completed, the installation will measure 17 feet wide by 8 feet tall and be raised 17 feet above the center's floor.

The giant stained glass hanging depicts the little-known Dena'ina people, the southernmost Alaska Athabascans, as they go about their daily subsistence lifestyle on the edge of Cook Inlet in Southcentral Alaska.

Hunters, berry pickers, fish drying racks, fishermen, fishing weirs, children, sea life and a log house with a sod roof are highlighted.

An upper stained glass panel, 2 feet high and almost as wide, displays the mountains on the other side of across Cook Inlet. Another similarly sized panel of painted aluminum silhouettes - two, bow-armed hunters and their prey - a hare, fox, moose, bear, caribou and sheep - is attached below the main multihued stained glass scene.

Sentinel figure panels hang on either side of the large artwork. One is a chief with a dentalium neck ornament, holding a shell rattle. The other stained-glass Native figure displays a plank drum.

The finishing touch is a beaded aurora borealis designed by Grant and crafted by Shirley Holmberg, which will be mounted above the stained glass panorama.

The shimmering topper is 16 feet wide and features 660 beaded strands placed 5/16 of an inch apart. The strands range between 3½ and 6 feet in length, Holmberg said.

Holmberg, by day a family services team facilitator at Tanana Chiefs Conference, spent 162 hours of her evenings and weekends from June through August assembling the piece, which is made up of multiple crystals and 20 different colors of glass beads.

Grant constructed a similar free-hanging painted aluminum art piece for Chugiak High School several years ago.

Grant said he discovered his love of art at a young age - the third grade to be exact - when after copying a robin for a science project, he realized he could draw.

"You couldn't get me to study after that," he grinned. "I was always the class artist from then on."

Grant started his art career drawing and painting but later learned ceramics and woodcarving. In the last six or seven years, he's been mostly working with aluminum.

"I discovered in One Percent for Art projects that I can make money off of it and people like aluminum because it's maintenance-free," he said.

Grant doesn't paint his aluminum artwork if it is on display outdoors.

"I let it oxidize. It turns to a milky color," he explained.

Grant already has installed the large aluminum frame that will enclose the Dena'ina piece. It is hanging from the scaffolding in the foyer area of the Dena'ina Convention Center in front of a south-facing window.

Grant's fellow-artist brother, Jay Schrock, helped with the metal work, fabrication and labor-intensive installation of the hanging's main frame in the convention center.

"He's my main man. I'm not very strong anymore," said Grant, who is undergoing cancer treatment.

This is the third time Grant has collaborated with Mathews, utilizing her stained-glass skills to bring his artistic vision to completion. The two previous projects were a stained-glass window at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church on First Avenue and a painted aluminum raven grasping a glass sun in its claws at the Chena River Convention Center.

Mathews and her staff, Frison, Katie Wells, Amanda Love and Juneau friend JoLynn Bennett, who flew down in for a week recently to help out, have been working nonstop since June constructing the 18 glass panels.

On Friday afternoon, the end of the long project was in sight, and plans were under way to transport the stained glass panels to Anchorage for its installation next weekend.

As Mathews surveyed several gleaming stained glass panels spread across the glass studio's huge worktable, she sighed. "I wish it was staying in Fairbanks."

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