Capitol's First Tree

Staffers gather ornaments from all corners of the state to get ready for today's open house

Posted: Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Though few politicians stir in the state Capitol during the holiday season, visions of Alaska are twinkling in their first-ever Capitol tree.

On Monday morning, the women who work for the Alaska Legislative Council hurried up and down the stairs of the Capitol carrying small hand-made treasures from around the state.

They hung decorations, such as seal-fur ornaments from Shishmaref, on the tree, now on display in the 1931-built building's ground floor lobby.

Led by Judy Ohmer, chief of staff for Legislative Council chairman Pete Kott, the council staff spent three months preparing for the Capitol's holiday open house, which is today from 2 to 6 p.m.

A few remaining ornaments from Petersburg, Cordova and Anchorage arrived Monday morning and were unwrapped for the first time underneath the tree.

It's the first holiday public open house at the Capitol. Judging by the reactions by some of the building's year-round occupants, it may not be the last.

Legislative security officer Gary Stambaugh stepped into the lobby Monday morning while legislative staffers were spreading out the ornaments under the tree.

The Alaska-themed tree trinkets included:

• A Santa flying on a bald eagle chiseled out of cottonwood bark, from Haines.

• Fur seal yo-yos, from Eek.

• Athabascan birch baskets, from Rampart.

• A Tlingit figurine wrapped in a cape, wearing a killer whale hat, from Wrangell.

• A miniature Chilkat weaving and a basket-woven deer ornament, a Tlingit symbol of peace, both by a Klukwan Native artist.

• A pink silk banner, from Anchorage's Hmong community.

There are about 38 ornaments in all, gathered from the 40 House and 20 Senate districts.

As he looked at the display on the floor, Stambaugh's face broke out in a big smile.

"You've got to hand it to Judy. ... She's a real instigator of fun," Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said later, after she got her own look at the Capitol tree.

The Capitol feels more cheerful now, Kerttula said.

"It's so appropriate for the Capitol building to get into the spirit as well as the Governor's Mansion," Kerttula said.

The Governor's Mansion open house is a old tradition, having begun 92 years ago. It features music and tables weighed down with holiday treats.

By comparison, the event at the Capitol is a low-budget affair. The open house is centered on the tree and the building itself, which is getting spruced-up legislative chambers this winter.

Hot chocolate, with whipped cream and sprinkles, as well as cider and candy canes, will be served.

Since September, Ohmer's staff and Alaska's 22 legislative information offices have gathered handmade holiday tree ornaments from all around Alaska.

"This really has been fun," Ohmer said. "To see just the variety of what people are doing (with their art)."

"Shishmaref really came through," she added, noting that two village artists, one in her late 1980s, had provided Eskimo fur seal ornaments.

Assembling the locally made ornaments - either commissioned or picked up by state workers at community art bazaars - "took someone who was willing to make it happen in each legislative district," Ohmer said.

"There was no pattern to who gave and who didn't," Ohmer added.

Petersburg artist Polly Koeneman didn't know that one of her ornaments was slated for the Capitol tree until contacted by a reporter.

Koeneman said she began painting in her Scandinavian rosemaling tradition about 30 years ago, and has traveled to Norway three times for instruction.

"It's just a learned art," said Koeneman, who sells her products in Petersburg's Oktoberfest bazaar and a local art shop.

One of the more eye-popping ornaments is the eagle-riding Santa, by Haines woodcrafter Susan Smith. She specializes in carving Christmas crafts that sell by mail-order or at the Alaska Christmas Store in Skagway.

Smith said she was honored to have a chance to carve an ornament that represents Haines, which is dubbed the "Valley of the Eagles" for its large resident eagle population.

The eagle-riding Santa is a first edition, she said.

"I've never done one like that, though I have done a lot of Santas (with) bears," Smith said.

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