By Indra Arriaga
From the ashes and rubble of the Paradise Inn emerged a stunningly compelling mural this past weekend, “The Eyes of Spenard”, by artists James Temte and Michael Conti.
The Paradise Inn was a Polynesian-themed hotel built in 1962 that over the years took a dive into darkness and subsequently, rock bottom. In its last days, the inn was infamous for drug activity, human trafficking, prostitution and who knows what else. When the Feds shut it down in 2017, the decrepit building’s days were numbered. Cindy Berger, the property owner, demolished the building, which exposed the adjacent wall belonging to the neighboring building. The heavily textured wall with tones of grey, green and black stood naked facing the corner of 30th and Spenard, where only the old Paradise Inn vacancy sign remains, abandoned at the corner with a lonely fire hydrant for company. Berger decided this was an opportunity to reclaim that location and turn it into something positive that not only spoke to the history of that corner, but also wove that history into an art statement for the community and she was right. The mural is as powerful as it is beautiful, with a pair of eyes that span 20 feet in height and 50 feet in length, and that reclaim that part of Spenard and its history, and diligently watches the traffic come and go.
Berger says that it took her a long time to find the right artist for the project but when she met Temte, she knew it was the right fit. Temte then brought Conti in to collaborate and together they worked on the concept. There were a few concepts considered, including a set of hands, and also an image of children peeping over the top, but then they saw the mockup of the eyes, Berger said, “This is the image we all fell in love with; it was a unanimous.”
The wonderful thing about seizing a moment is that one never knows where it will lead. Conti recalls the day he took the photo in 2012. He says he was at the university photo lab when he saw a student with a very interesting look, bleached blonde hair, red lipstick and an equally interesting shirt. He said he wanted to take her picture but hesitated until the student turned a corner and a horizontal band of light fell across her eyes, and then he knew he had to at least ask her — lucky for him, and for Anchorage that Christine Adams said “Yes.” Adams says she initially had some hesitation about the image until she realized the project would only feature her eyes.
Adams is Tlingit from Southeast. She lives in Anchorage and works in the neighborhood. She is very aware of the changes that the neighborhood is undergoing and thinks this is a step in the right direction. She talked about the inequities she sees around race, gender, income or lack thereof, and says it’s important to address them and recognize them and move forward in a way that benefits everybody. “In terms of the mural, I think it’s awesome,” she said. “It’s basically exactly what we need.”
“The Eyes of Spenard” as a response to the history of that corner is significant and important for the healing that needs to happen from past injustices and turmoil. So far, residents and passersby alike have welcomed the mural. The artists report positive exchanges they had as they were installing the mural. Even as we conducted a 15-minute interview at the site, there were more than a handful of folks that dropped in to look at the mural, appreciate it, and even compliment Temte. One passerby said he was at work and heard that someone had done a cool mural so he stopped by on his bike to see it.
“She looks like a star,” he said.
“It was a gamble to put this big of a piece up on this wall, but people are just calling and dropping by, and texting, and reaching out,” Berger said. “There’s a lot of positive energy for this particular piece.” For Conti, “Presenting just the eyes is reversing the male gaze; she’s watching you and looking back, a strong woman of color confronting that sort of history,” and Temte added, “We’ve gotten so much positive feedback, it uplifts the community. It shows intention and care.”
Temte adds that from a social aspect, and given that it’s on the site of the Paradise Inn, “She’s caring over the space and letting people know they’re not alone, somebody can help them and see them, and that can be comforting.”
Temte mentioned that he’s reminded of the Hawthorne Effect, which theorizes that people tend to modify their behavior when they are being watched. If this is true, perhaps some changes are afoot in Spenard.
Temte is working on developing the Anchorage Mural Project or AMP, an organization that will bring artists and business owners together to explore the possibilities of creating murals around town. Temte says that the concept behind AMP is “based around community engagement, learning from the community, and helping public art represent the community.”
For Berger and other business owners, AMP would be a great resource to help private investment contribute to the beatification of neighborhoods, and thus, develop community.