This summer I worked on a fun and different (for me) project. The McCarthy Area Council (MAC) is a local nonprofit that serves as a kind of town government for McCarthy. They help fund projects like road maintenance and upkeep of the public outhouses around town, and serve as a forum for people to voice collective opinions. Last year they expanded the mail shack building, and decided they wanted a mural painted on one of the walls with the local kids. I volunteered to organize this project.
About the Mail Shack:
My mailing address is PO Box MXY, which is the same for all the residents of McCarthy. Twice a week, mail is flown in from Glennallen. The mail goes to the mail shack, where it is sorted by volunteers into our individual boxes. It’s not like a Post Office where you have a key, it’s way more informal. Sometimes your mail ends up in the wrong box, but you can usually track it down. Unsurprisingly, the mail shack is on the main airstrip and is one of the epicenters of McCarthy life. After painting there throughout the summer I can tell you that people stop by all times of day, and all days of the week. It also has an amazing view of the surrounding area.
The mail shack before the mural. Step one was priming the wall.
Organizing a Community Mural:
First I came up with a theme for people to contribute to. Since the Mail Shack has a beautiful overlook of the area and also is a main landmark for locals and tourists I thought it would be great to feature the natural history. I also wanted to talk about this place past and present. I think the McCarthy-Kennicott Valley is such a unique place because of its natural history - from copper deposits, glaciers, braided rivers, to the plants and animals that sustain us – I wanted to give people the chance to depict what they think makes this place special. I also wanted to show the a version of the landscape and town 100 years ago to give people the sense of how this place has changed, and also how it has stayed the same.
I was able to get funding with a mini grant through the Alaska Humanities Forum and to work with local nonprofits in addition to MAC. The McCarthy-Kennicott Historical Museum and the Wrangell Mountains Center also supported the project. We held two youth programs to get things started. The first one was to generate content and drawings for the mural. We walked around and did some field sketching, talked about what was important about this place that should be on the mural, and made some final drawings to put on the wall. I also used the time capsule that participants in the Kids Making History program add to each July where they record what they love about this place after learning about the local history. I took the drawings and scanned them into Photoshop to develop a design and by mid-July we were ready to start painting. In the second workshop we put paint on the wall! Since most of my first helpers were short, we worked from the bottom up.
The Final Product:
I had so many different people of all ages stop by to help paint the mural. It was a really fun process for me. Some of the plants and animals changed a bit as people came in and made revisions. At one point the bear had very distinct genitalia, which got edited out. We also had a lot of beaver activity this summer so it was important to feature that animal prominently. People came to me with subjects they wanted included so I added things like a salmon, a raven, etc. as the mural took shape. Grandma Patt came by at the perfect time to help me draw in and paint the historic McCarthy town. She has an extensive knowledge of the local history and helped me to interpret my sketch of a historic photograph.
Sometimes it was hard for me to step back and remember that this wasn’t my project, to figure out how to unify the mural but leave each person’s unique marks. Really this challenge made the project more fun in the end. I’m appreciative of everyone who helped and I hope that people enjoy the mural for years to come.
Many thanks to Luke at McKinney Makes Media for taking the final photographs!