Vehicle art is something that’s been around for almost as long as there have been vehicles, from the snarling nose art of warplanes to the sophisticated color schemes of performance automobiles.
But Capital City Fire/Rescue looked back a just a little earlier than most for inspiration that when adorning its most recently acquired ambulance: to a 10,000-year tradition of formline art and design carried on by the Indigenous inhabitants of what’s now Southeast Alaska.
“Chief Etheridge asked about putting a Native detail on the ambulance,” said CCFR Assistant Chief Chad Cameron in a phone interview. “I said, that’s a fabulous idea, but we need to make sure it’s culturally appropriate to do so. (Dixie Hutchinson) took it from there and expanded it. She said, not only is this culturally appropriate, but it’s a fantastic idea, we love it.”
Hutchinson, the communications manager for Sealaska Corporation, reached out to the Unity Group, an umbrella organization involving all of Juneau’s Alaska Native cultural, governmental and corporate entities. They rapidly put together a request for proposals and selected two local Alaska Native artists, Crystal Worl and Mary Goddard, to decorate the sides of the ambulance’s box, or transport section.
“I wanted to create something that was quality formline, the best that I could do in the time I had,” Worl said in a phone interview. “I wanted something that fit the ambulance, that told a story about healing and community.”
The Unity Group raised donations from major Native Alaskan corporations and tribal organizations in Juneau and funded the design and execution of the art installation, Hutchinson said. Local artists and companies were paid for the work as a way of giving back to the local economy as the coronavirus drags on. The project cost about $10,000, Hutchinson said, and was completely covered by the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Goldbelt Inc., Sealaska Corporation and the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium.
Collaboration and serendipity
Both Worl and Goddard said one of the biggest difficulties was the rapid timeline for completion as the ambulance’s refurbishment approached completion. Worl, located in Juneau, and Goddard, located in Sitka, collaborated electronically, initially planning to create a completely collaborative piece before pivoting to each artist doing a side, with a unified theme and similar design elements. The idea to reach out to local artists and the rapidly upcoming completion of the vehicle mandated tight timelines for design completion, Worl said.
“I feel like it’s a fabulous way to connect cultural art with what’s relevant today. You have your formline art, which is a very traditional art, with all this history and culture,” Goddard said in a phone interview. “In order to communicate with the world today, you need to share it on things like the side of an ambulance.”
The design includes a healing hand and a formline face on both sides.
“One thing that kept coming up in our sketches was a hand. One of the things I wanted was something any human could identify because it’s a care unit,” Worl said. “It’s taking care of human beings.”
The art also includes other popular Northwest Coast art designs instead of cultural symbols and themes, including a sun on Goddard’s side and stars on Worl’s side, representing the constant care CCFR’s personnel provide for Juneau.
“Her side is day time, my side is nighttime,” Worl said. “It was serendipitous. When we were in the final stages, she added that and I added that, and we were like, whoa. The universe is with us. I love that it happened. It felt very sporadic and spontaneous and very serendipitous.”
The art also needed to conform to certain federal regulations regarding the appearance of ambulances, Cameron said, including a horizontal stripe of a certain width and breadth. This was met by turning the hand’s thumb into a stripe easily satisfying the requirement, Worl said.
“The goal was to look at this, since it has a box shape, and feed off the bentwood box shape which wraps around,” Goddard said. “I love this kind of stuff. Not only is it a lot of fun for me I enjoy being connected to the community. I think it’s a beautiful way to share culture. When you live in a place such as Southeast Alaska, or no matter where you live, it should reflect the place you live.”
Start of something larger?
While this adornment is one of the first examples of its style of art, Cameron thinks its unlikely to be the last.
“This is huge, I really do think,” Cameron said. “140,000 people have looked at our Facebook post as of yesterday. We had different fire chiefs around the state that heard what we’re doing.”
This decoration of the vehicles is one way for the community to take ownership of its emergency response department, Cameron said, which belongs to them, the taxpayers, even if this particular art installation didn’t actually cost the taxpayers a dime.
“We chose decals over paint because we figured it would be easier to repair if something happened to the ambulance,” Cameron said. “We used Commercial Signs and Printing. We wanted to keep it local. The artists were fabulous. I can’t say enough good things about Crystal and Mary.”
Cameron, who’s in charge of equipment acquisitions like the refurbished ambulances, was extremely satisfied with the work. With a second overhauled ambulance coming online in November, Cameron is reaching out to other groups to see if they’re interested in their own cultural artwork.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm and excitement over the project. It turned out fabulous. I’m in awe,” Cameron said. “As CCFR, we want to be inclusive. I’ve already contacted other groups in town on the other ambulance. I’ve got a couple of calls out to other cultural groups in the community, seeing if they’re interested. It’s been a great project to be part of. And great people, The artists, the Unity Group, all came together.”
CCFR is laying out its requirements for for a ladder truck, Cameron said, a million-dollar-plus investment expected to remain in commission for more than 30 years. The same community pride and ownership of CCFR that decorated this ambulance will help to adorn that truck, Cameron said.
“I really hope that this opens opportunity for more Indigenous artists and artists of color to be represented in public art, especially with the current conditions,” Worl said. “The timing on this couldn’t be more perfect. It’s our turn to tell our story and to show the public how to do it authentically. And to show how the community can show a sense of pride of who we are and show a sense of diversity. I hope more places in Alaska and anywhere else reach out to local artists.”
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.