A square building, a garage, sits in the river bottom of Anchorage’s Fish Creek, below the traffic noise of Northern Lights Boulevard, across the road from the row of worn-out trailers that line the creek, with a huge pencil hanging from the front wall where most businesses would hang a sign. Perhaps eight feet long, the pencil sags flaccidly into an arch. Before the previous owner died, mechanical debris piled high on the property and inside the garage, making a nest for crusty old men in that part of Spenard to sip coffee and discuss masculine matters. Is the impotent pencil a feminist statement? In answer the current owner, Sheila Wyne, merely smiles mischievously and somewhat shyly.
A photo of Sheila Wyne’s sculpture Spacer Image Wyne is impossibly slender in a stretchy black top, another contrast to the previous owner, who my imagination has endowed with a big pot belly, Carhart overalls and a round, whiskered face. He would have used the steel beam along the ceiling to lift an engine block from a beat-up International Harvester pick-up. Wyne uses it for heavy lifting, too: she lifts ideas. The garage is her art studio. She assembles statements here in wood, metal, tile—anything. The medium is whatever material best manifests her moment’s fancy or conviction. The old guy would have let his friends lift stuff here, and Wyne does, too. She lent her studio to a performance artist who needed to practice hoisting herself by her body piercings.
There’s still junk all over the place, just a different kind. A leg with pants and a shoe, all carved of wood, hangs from the ceiling; a rumpled unmade bed made to appear of bronze is mounted on the wall; outside, an old-fashioned fridge with a latching handle sits amid the debris, a quote from Bertrand Russell scribbled on the door. Inside the fridge, Wyne painted a homage to “The Figure 5 In Gold,” by Charles Demuth. But since the door is frozen shut she can only describe the painting to me, not show it, which may even enhance the piece.
Out of 220 applicants, Wyne recently received a $12,000 fellowship from the Rasmuson Foundation’s Arts and Culture Initiative (18 artists got awards of various sizes). The invitation for proposals mentioned giving fellowships so artists would have time to create without worldly pressures. But Wyne didn’t need time: she was already devoting every aspect of her life to art. She travels. She works. She doesn’t have a residence other than her work space. What she needed was a toilet, a sink, and a roof that would keep the rain out. The Outside panel that reviewed her portfolio seems to have thought that was a reasonable request.
Now Wyne can walk through the studio and point to where the roof will be raised, creating a living space, and where the toilet will stand, creating relief from peeing in below-zero cold. “I doubt anyone else used the word ‘pee’ in their fellowship application,” she said.
I wondered why our society allocates so little of its vast wealth to fine art, which is its highest and most lasting expression. Why should a toilet be such a big deal? Why should artists be poor?
Wyne gently corrected me. The previous owner (the one in my imagination) would have answered the same way.