Walk past the right side of the information desk at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center and you'll be greeted by a small podium displaying a pair of women's clear, plastic, high-heeled ankle boots filled with what looks like red peas suspended in see-through Jell-O.
On closer inspection, you find the boots are perched on a lacquered map of Prince William Sound, figure out the red peas are probably salmon roe suspended in acrylic, and notice the podium is labeled: Sheila Wyne, "I Walk on Water Searching for My Lost Children," mixed media.
The red boots are not a high-heeled version of Dorothy's ruby slippers she wears for wild nights out on the town with Toto and the Tin Man, but one of more than 75 works of art that make up "Wild Alaska: Bounty of the Sea," an exhibit of art by Alaskans on display at the center for the summer.
Placing the ruby slipper-like red boots at the entrance to the show is appropriate, since a lot of visitors will tell you entering the state of Alaska is like being plunked down in the Land of Oz you can't believe what you're seeing. Visitors who walk through the show are often as impressed and surprised by the range of styles, subject matter and materials in the pieces as they are by the mountains, glaciers and wildlife that drew them to the state.
"Self Fish" by Fred Anderson
"There's a lot of creativity in here. There are a lot materials being used," said Randy Thompson.
Thompson, a resident of Santa Fe, N.M., came to Kenai for the day with his son Erick, who is stationed at Fort Richardson in Anchorage. Like a lot of visitors, the pair walked through the doors of the center looking for things to do in the area and stumbled onto the exhibit.
Thompson slowly roamed through the show and spent a lot of time with one hand under his chin, poised in contemplation in front of many of the pieces.
He liked the use of halibut skin in a piece called "Migration of the Halibut" by Dannetta R. Wakefield, in which the dried skin, embroidered with thread and inked with a world map, is stretched out and pinned, with other fish skins, to a canvas of old planks.
"Sweet Summer of '66" by Thor Evenson
He also liked a photograph of Cook Inlet at sunset with fishing boats in the foreground and Mount Redoubt in the background, called "Fleets In," by Greg Daniels.
"We have fabulous sunsets in New Mexico, but that thing's just amazing," he said.
Thompson has taken art walks through the galleries along Canyon Road in Santa Fe and is familiar with the Native American art of the southwest but was less familiar with Native Alaskan art.
He was particularly struck by the "play on Native art" he found in some of the pieces, such as a carved wood mask with a goatee shaped like a whale's tale by Sven Haakanson Jr., called "Too Many Fish Tales."
"Delicate Future" by Lowell Zercher
"It's a different style, a whole different realm," he said.
Thompson appreciated the pieces that didn't take themselves too seriously. For example, he noted a piece by Wendy Croskrey whose title made him smile. The work is composed of two light-blue ice skates with profiles of salmon carved in the blades, which curl like breakers at the back. The piece is called "Sea Skate." A skate is a stingray-like sea creature.
"I tend to like puns, so visual puns I enjoy," he said.
The piece in the show Thompson found funniest was a self-portrait by John Tobin. In the photograph, Tobin is grinning as he sits at a table and squeezes a salmon he holds high to one side. A white stream arcs down from the fish into a bowl of cereal two feet below. The title of the piece is "Got Milt?" The work is a play on the "Got Milk?" advertising campaign, but to get the joke you have to know that fish semen is called milt.
"Too Many Fish Tales" by Sven Haakanson Jr.
Liz Gilbert came up from St. Louis to wait tables in Kenai for the summer. She toured the show with friends Bryan Brody and Tammy Graff, also from St. Louis. Gilbert wanted to see the show as a way to get to know the Kenai Peninsula and its residents.
"It's a way to dive in and see about the area, about how the locals see things," she said.
Gilbert was glad to see the natural beauty of the state reflected in much of the art. She thought residents might take their surroundings for granted and lose the awe and wonder she and her friends have for the view.
"For us it's shockingly beautiful," she said. "But I could see how you might get used to it."
Bryan Brody, who's also working for the summer in Kenai, was surprised one of the show's primary sponsors was ConocoPhillips. He didn't associate oil companies with art, especially a show focusing on sea life.
"It's an interesting contrast," he said.
Tammy Graff, who's "bumming around" with her friends until her job starts next month, pointed to a blue wall painted with an underwater ocean scene and hung with stuffed salmon, rockfish, eels, sharks, skates, belugas and other sea life.
"I like the fish," she said.
"Tyee" by Rob Goldberg
Although the fish weren't part of the art show, they illustrate the exhibit's "Bounty of the Sea" theme.
The wall is a permanent display and recently was renovated, with more than 40 species found in the ocean, rivers and lakes around the Kenai Peninsula added to the collection to push the total to more than 70.
"It just goes to show there aren't just salmon out there," said Dana Woodard, museum services manager at the visitors center..
Woodard organizes the summer art show, which is in its fifth year. Twice in the past five years, the summer show has been called, "A Celebration of Wildlife Art," and featured national and international contributors alongside Alaska artists. This year's show features Kenai Peninsula artists, as well as contributors from as far north as Fairbanks and as far south as Juneau, but no one from Outside.
"Badarki Heaven" by Lena Amason
"Everyone in the show had to live in Alaska full time," Woodard said. "For some reason, there's a lot of Anchorage folks this year."
To help Anchorage-based artists attend the show's opening reception, the center provides a free chartered bus ride each year. Seats on the bus were open to the public this year for the first time and the bus filled up. More than 50 Anchorage artists and residents attended the show's opening April 30.
"Kenai is slowly developing a reputation for having this show," said Michelle Glass, executive director of the center.
The summer art show is one of the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center's premier events and plans already are under way for next year's show.
"We'd like to do the theme, 'Alaska Native Arts Now,' to focus on contemporary Native artists," Glass said.
According to surveys, one of the top five reasons tourists give for coming to Alaska is to experience Native culture and art. In anticipation of the Arctic Winter Games coming the Kenai-Soldotna area in 2006, it seemed like a good time to raise the area's profile in the eyes of potential tourists by highlighting Native artists, Glass said.
No matter what the theme of the summer art show is, Glass sees the annual exhibit as a valuable asset. Even if tourists come specifically to see the show, Glass thinks they linger at the visitors center longer because of the art and so are more likely to discover things to do in the area they wouldn't otherwise, which can only be good for local businesses.
"We're trying to be an economic driver and this show can do that," she said.
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