Crystal Worl is creating a massive new mural in downtown Anchorage as part of the Alaska Mural Project. As a boldly Indigenous work replacing an older mural, her mock up is already generating discussion and support. I wanted to check in with her about how it feels to be in the public eye shaping public space during this era of seismic cultural shifts in Alaska and around the world.
Crystal Worl is a prolific powerhouse of a multimedia artist who draws on her Tlingit, Athabascan, Yu’pik, and Filipino heritage to create works with paint, fur, beadwork, printmaking, clothing design, as well as on an ambulance, a basketball court, and very large walls. She grew up between Fairbanks and Juneau, and now lives in Juneau where she co-owns the groundbreaking Trickster Company with her brother, the artist and designer Rico Worl.
Some rough Alaska summer weather allowed me to catch up with Crystal on the phone while she waited for a delayed flight at the Sitka airport, on her way to Anchorage to paint her new mural. Our conversation has been edited for clarity. - Malena Marvin, co-founder, On Fire in AK.
MM: So this is a big mural! I mean, how big will it be actually?
CW: It’s going to be 125 feet long by 48 feet tall…
MM: Wow that is big! And it’s also big in terms of its cultural significance. How are you feeling as you get ready to begin painting, both in your body and in your heart?
CW: I’m feeling super honored and nervous and excited, all the feels. It’s a very big project. It’s four times larger than the biggest one I’ve done, which was last summer in Juneau. It’s a huge project and the method is also very different. We’re going to be painting with giant brushes and using spray paint and a hose gun, a spray gun. I’m not super comfortable with spray paint but the Anchorage Museum has hired Seattle Mural and they are an awesome team that is very experienced and professional in working with spray paints and painting murals for artists in Seattle. We have a team member flying from Seattle to Anchorage and meeting me there tomorrow to start. I’m excited because I love doing projects that involve a lot of teamwork. Unfortunately the lift only allows two people so it’s going to be a massive project and a two person job. Which was kind of tough for me because I really like to have apprentices but for this particular project we can only have two people. I also have to make sure we have respirators, safety harnesses, that we’re both insured. So there are all these different nuances to prepare for. Safety first, you know.
MM: Sounds kind of physically grueling but also like you’ll have the opportunity to learn some new methods.
CW: I kind of view this as just painting another painting but it’s massive! I’m comfortable with the paintbrush but I’m excited to learn from John how to use the spray paint gun and get comfortable with spray paint. It’s one thing I feel I’ve missed out on or not tuned into, so this project is definitely going to help me grow in that area. There are many benefits to spray painting too. The weather for August is supposed to be rainy in Anchorage. I’m always running against the elements in Alaska when I do murals but with the spray gun minimal rain is ok.
MM: I love the pinks and purples and both the brightness and contrast of the mock up. Did you have to summon special courage to interpret color so boldly at this scale?
CW: Two years ago there was a RFP–a call for art–for artists in Alaska to submit their portfolio and their work to be selected by the Alaska Mural Project team to do a mural in Anchorage. They selected a handful of artists and a handful of walls and matched artists to walls. I actually was supposed to do a different wall but after multiple interviews with the jury committee, and getting to know them, they really loved my work and my work ethic and decided to move me onto this wall. I said sure, I’d love to. But I told them... I said this is my style, I work with a very vibrant color palette. I’m not one to choose monotone colors! Just so you know this wall’s going to be bold and bright. I feel like it goes well with the theme and the story that I’m sharing.
MM: I love that process. You were able to articulate who you are and just set the terms. Art allows us to express things that words cannot, but is there a story or additional context to the imagery that you want people to consider?
CW: Yeah so the previous mural at this location was there for something like 25 years. Murals aren’t meant to last forever and times change. The last mural was a timeline of Anchorage’s history but it was from a very white perspective. It was not inclusive of Indigenous people, there was no acknowledgment of Denaʼina territory which is what the mural is on. The depiction of Native people on that mural was very poor. You know, it had its time and now its given itself to something new, thus the theme is land acknowledgment and acknowledging Dena'ina territory but also all the different tribes that live and coexist and work in Anchorage which is quite extensive.
Murals aren’t meant to last forever and times change. The last mural was a timeline of Anchorage’s history but it was from a very white perspective. It was not inclusive of Indigenous people, there was no acknowledgment of Denaʼina territory which is what the mural is on.
I also didn’t want my new mural to be a linear timeline - I didn’t want it to be something that looks like it’s from the past. I want it to be like in the now, to be very present. I was studying Dena'ina and Deg Hit’an culture and art and regalia and I was studying all these different cultures and trying to find the one thing we all have in common and it’s subsistence. It’s harvesting and fishing and hunting. So I have the Chugach range with the midnight sun which could be sunset or sunrise. There are caribou. The fox. The beaver. And salmon. Salmon was a very strong commonality with fishing and smoking and then there’s also berry picking.
And then there’s a watermark design that’s of beadwork patterns because I was trying to take components of regalia and imagery in jewelry that’s significant to Dena'ina. A lot of these designs were traded. I don’t feel any one design belongs to any one person, stories were traded, songs were traded. So there are beadwork patterns that are watermarked on the landscape. You can also see a circle in all the animals. In Yup’ik we call that the Inua. The Inua is the inner being, the inner spirit. There are also components of formline design which comes from Southeast Alaska area.
The last detail you can’t really see in the mock up is the border. There are dentalium shells and beads that are on the border design. Once it’s actually painted there will be quite a bit more texture and color, the trees are just a placeholder here, they will be painted in with texture.
MM: So really a lot of cultural layers in this painting, which feels so rich to me.
CW: It was a challenging thing to think of because I didn’t want to seem biased to one culture. Most of my art is formline design but I’m Tlingít, I’m Athabascan, I’m Yup’ik, I’m Filipino. Those are all cultures that are very much present all over Alaska. I just wanted to be inclusive and feel like people can look at this mural and feel that it acknowledges Indigenous cultural presence but also that we’re living in the modern day, that we’re still connected to our values, our subsistence life, having that relationship with animals. The color palette is very nontraditional, it’s very bright, not all of it is a traditional design, it’s fusion. I want that to indicate that we’re modern people living in the modern day using modern tools like a boom lift, spray paint gun, but also still bonded to our roots. I want people to look at it and feel really proud of their identity, whether they’re Indigenous or Alaskan. I want people to feel connected to it.
MM: I love the work of Adrienne Marie Brown, the author who has looked to Afrofuturism and sci-fi to frame her social justice work. She says our era is fascinating because on one hand the dominant culture is dying but on the other hand fresh new cultural forms are being born. The weight of capitalism and colonialism is collapsing in on itself. We are grieving climate change. At the same time people are creating radically new types of relationships, art, society. How do you view your role as an artist working in the public sphere during this paradoxical and intense point in history?
CW: Yeah it absolutely is intense. In the past two or three years I’ve started pursuing public art, partially because I was in lockdown with the pandemic and had more solitude and time to think about how and why I wanted to do it. But also with Black Lives Matter and George Floyd and all the movement that eventually led to removal of colonial statues, I saw that this opened the space for people of color to step up into public art. Public art is difficult and challenging but I felt I was ready for it, now is the time. We’re in this era where there’s finally space and a door opening for us. I’m jumping on it. It’s a little bit terrifying but it’s also reassuring because I have so many people in the Alaska community who are supportive and proud and who feel empowered through my artwork so that really channels a lot of energy for me to continue my work. But yeah, it’s really challenging.
I have good days where I feel I’m doing great and I have all this support. Then I have hard days where maybe I read on Twitter things that people were saying in disagreement or controversy about this piece or someone doesn’t like me or my art. I have ups and downs. I have other days where I question my own work ethic or my work. Am I pushing the boundaries enough? Am I pushing them too much? Is it right for me to say this? I’m constantly checking myself. I’m also constantly trying to reassure myself I’m on the right path. But it always comes around. It always works out great.
Am I pushing the boundaries enough? Am I pushing them too much? Is it right for me to say this? I’m constantly checking myself. I’m also constantly trying to reassure myself I’m on the right path. But it always comes around. It always works out great.
My family taught me to carry myself knowing who I am, where I’m from, being proud of who I am and knowing I have a good heart and good intentions to do the right thing. You know, I don’t know how to do anything, I learn by doing it. I just throw myself out there. It’s kind of freaky. I didn’t know how to do a mural last year and then I did that mural and it was… oh my goodness, it was so stressful! I really learned to let go and let go of stress and frustration because that was a true test of my strength. Having the weather and the rain… it would start raining and the paint would run and I had to scrub the wall for 6 hours and I was exhausted and it was like midnight. It’s windy, it’s cold, it’s dumping rain on me. I’m trying to tape up this plastic cover over the mural and the wind’s just catching like a parasail. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. It really stressed me out to the point where I was like I don’t know if I can keep doing this. But after I came through and completed it there were dancers that came out and celebrated, so many people in the community came up to me with so much heart and joy in their eyes. I thought ok this is worth it. It taught me to let go. Mother nature is in ultimate power no matter how much humans think we can control – the weather is everything.
MM: We’re also in a time where the more we shine light on how our collective histories of oppression relate to current issues of equity, representation, and land rights, the more resistance to change flares up. If you could speak directly to this resistance with your art, what is it you’d hope people hear?
CW: I’ve learned from my family, my clan members, and our people – I’ve really learned about resiliency. Really learned about how our ancestors survived through adapting to change in time, and moving with it, and embracing it. Our diversity is so important and it’s finally being given the attention it’s long deserved. I want to encourage people to embrace change instead of resist it.
I always encourage and invite everyone of all walks of life to embrace change and adapt to change because there are so many beautiful things and opportunities for everyone. If you choose to see it otherwise it’s something I’ll let go and move on from because it’s no longer my problem. I have to be resilient.
Our cultures are so beautiful but also very inclusive. Our values, our stories, our songs, absolutely beautiful. Our way of life, this land… it’s beautiful to share it. To be distraught and seek conflict creates a lot of negativity and it creates a problem. Unfortunately some can’t see past that, I have to let it go in my heart. It’s no longer my problem, it’s their problem. I need to carry on and carry forward. I always encourage and invite everyone of all walks of life to embrace change and adapt to change because there are so many beautiful things and opportunities for everyone. If you choose to see it otherwise it’s something I’ll let go and move on from because it’s no longer my problem. I have to be resilient. I don’t have time to give my energy to negativity or resistance when I’ve spent my whole life resisting how the world runs on the watch of a white man. So, it’s a sweet and sour time. A bitter and sweet time to be an Indigenous female artist. It’s exciting, it’s scary. There is abundance of opportunity but also I get a lot of feedback, and 99% is really supportive. But I can’t expect to please everyone. I won’t. I don’t have time for that. I want to stay strong because I want more artists to step up, I want more artists of color to feel brave and do it.
MM: I’m curious which artists or people inspire you, bring you strength, or give you vision.
CW: My mentor Robert Davidson is a Haida artist in BC, Canada. He really taught me not just a lot about art, but the philosophy of art. Learning about the ups and downs of being an artist but having grit and stamina to stick with it, to do the work. To not focus only on the process but focus on the grand completion of something.
I really love Alison Bremner, she’s dedicated herself to learning formline at it’s best and adding a twist to it. Her thing is Native humor. I think that’s so important, especially in a time when we need to heal. We need laughter for that. That inspires me a lot. I look at her art and it’s stunning. The formline is amazing. The context is hilarious.
You know who has always moved me is John Hoover. He has a lot of work in Anchorage. His work is just so beautiful and powerful. The mixed media and originality. The triptych of the panels, the carved surfaces painted and stained. His color palette, the textures, the way he depicted animals just was so moving. So sad I didn’t get to meet him before he passed but I’m good friends with his daughter.
Also Rick Bartow - love love this man’s work. He’s passed. But he’s done very modern contemporary surreal imagery of human animal forms that are transforming and teeth are sticking out… You look at his art and you just feel pain you feel pleasure its kind of jarring but at the same time its comforting. I love that. I love being uncomfortable.
And Drew Michael. He is one of the other artists doing a mural in downtown Anchorage. He’s a Yu’pik mask carver and I enjoy the way he conceptualizes not just art but everything, the way he talks about his life. He values life as absolutely precious and containing an abundance of opportunity to be creative. I love his energy and I see it in his art. It’s gorgeous. His masks tap into his ancestry and his roots but also use really vibrant colors. He carved this mask where he used pop colors and he had clouds painted onto the figures of the mask. He put 3d glasses on me and I looked at his mask and it just made my mind explode. It was awesome. He’s always thinking and macgyvering things, he just makes things out of nothing, rusty nails, collected things, made into art. He carved a giant puppet out of wood, he’s a jack of all trades, he’s really good at sewing. He’s just excited to live life and to create. He’s got such a great energy.
MM: Wow that is an amazing list of artists, thank you. What advice would you give to people who would like to organize or create more cultural representation in the public spaces where they live, but aren’t sure how to make that happen?
CW: The best advice I’ve received from my mentor Robert is to use the power of visualization. Don’t get stuck in the process, don’t focus on what you do or don’t have or what it’s going to take to get there. Focus on the end. Visualize the end product. Visualize yourself already having done it. Really visually see yourself vividly do the thing. And then be persistent with doing the work. You gotta show up. You gotta show up to do the work. There’s gonna be hard days, there’s gonna be great days. On good days stay humble, on hard days keep your grit - your stamina, your endurance.
At the end of the day there’s always going to be something or someone or some sort of force testing your strength. View it as that.
At the end of the day there’s always going to be something or someone or some sort of force testing your strength. View it as that. I could just give up and be sorry to everyone who is mad at me, I could say “I can’t do it because of the rain.” But instead I choose to let go of stressing about it and realize that those are forces that are here to test my strength. So yeah, do the work. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, don’t be afraid to admit you need to learn. Be ready and available to always be learning. I don’t know anything but I'm like, you know what I’m just gonna do it. Fake it till you make it if you have to. Be vulnerable. Have fun with it.
MM: That’s pretty fantastic advice. I have one more question. If I could snap my fingers and commission you for the most awesome public art project of your dreams, what would it be?
CW: I’ve been really trying to get the attention of Alaska Airlines to let me design a plane for them.
MM: Give this woman a plane.
CW: Give me a plane! I would love to design aircraft. I don’t see why not.
MM: I don’t see why not either. I know we also may be seeing new ferries come online at some point in Alaska.
CW: I would be super excited to design boats. I’m also hoping more artists will step up and start applying to these things because public art applications are scary, they use terminology that doesn't’ make sense. I swear it’s just there to deter people! I don’t know what it all means but just do it. There’s just not enough Indigenous people applying and sticking with it. Sometimes I hear people saying there’s a lot of Rico Worl and Crystal Worl art out there, save some room for the rest of us. But scarcity thinking is the wrong mentality.
I don’t want to be the only artist, I don’t want to see my art everywhere. I want to see art everywhere done by everyone. And I’m here to help.
I view our hard work as setting a platform, breaking barriers, and making a pathway for more to come after and follow. I don’t want to be the only artist, I don’t want to see my art everywhere. I want to see art everywhere done by everyone. And I’m here to help. The mentality of scarcity is… simply that. It’s time to switch into the mentality that there is abundance of opportunity for those willing to do the work and show up. You’d be surprised how many aren’t willing to show up or stick to it. It’s hard.
MM: People are managing a lot in our society, there’s a lot that can hold us back. But art is definitely a thing that can keep us moving forward.
CW: There’s definitely a lot of facets to it... But we’re in it together so let’s just do this together. There’s no time to argue!
MM: We have a world to create here!
MM: Ok, I just appreciate your time so much and it’s an inspiration to hear your words. I created On Fire In AK with my friend Noah because I wanted to do less arguing on social media and instead use my time there to elevate ideas I find interesting and people that are doing cool things. We want to uplift certain aspects of Alaskan organizing and creativity.
CW: I love it and I really appreciate you. Thank you for doing that.
MM: Ok go catch that plane to Anchorage and make your mural! I hope your flight is safe and the weather isn't too scary.