“Artist activist” was how the late author and wilderness defender Edward Abbey once described Mavis Muller. It’s a fitting title for Muller, who believes that art put into action is a means of asserting “that we will not be passive but instead animated with love, support, energy and creativity that will shape our current reality by balancing outrage and disappointment with actions that are positive and unifying.”
When the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef on March 24, 1989, ripped a hole in its hull and disgorged millions of gallons of Alaska crude oil into Prince William Sound, Muller, originally from South Dakota and an Alaskan since 1984, put that belief into action. As affected communities became increasingly horrified and enraged by the magnitude of the growing tragedy, Muller used her “artivism” to help transform rage into action and pain into healing.
Last Friday, “Alaskans Still Fighting — an exhibit in memoriam of the 30th dark anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska,” a collection of Muller’s “spill-mobelia,” opened at K-Bay Caffé in Homer. The exhibit continues through March.
“It’s not so much a review” of the spill, Muller said, but a tribute to “the creative and passionate ways a community responded.”
Bracketing the exhibit are two large banners made by Muller. The black fabric on which they’re made was scraps of material used to create booms to protect beaches from the encroaching flood of Exxon Valdez oil. One banner declares “Alaskans still fighting for the earth” and the other reads, “Still fighting for Alaska.” They, along with banners Muller made for Alaska communities impacted by the spill, have been unfurled on numerous occasions. On the one-year anniversary of the spill, they were displayed on vessels in Coronado Bay, Calif., where the damaged Exxon Valdez was taken to be repaired. More than 30 other communities in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Arizona and Hawaii joined in that event by simultaneously unfurling their own banners in a show of solidarity.
“Alaskans still fighting for the earth” was featured on the cover of “The Day the Water Died – a Compilation of the November 1989 Citizens Commission Hearings on the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.” It also won an award at the Krepps Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, N.Y., was part of an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Vigo, Galicia, Spain, that commemorated the 10-year anniversary of the Prestige oil spill in Spain, and was included in “In the Balance: Art for a Changing World,” an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney Australia.
Sandwiched between the banners at the K-Bay Caffé exhibit are spill-related photographs, newspaper clippings and related art. “Solemn-Eyes,” a birch mask created by Muller, incorporates fragile bird bones found on an oil-soaked beach and tufts of sea otter fur collected from a post-spill animal recovery station. Visitors to the exhibit can read spill-inspired writings of Tom Bodett and look through the Alaska Oil Spill Curriculum created by Belle Mickelson, Elizabeth Trowbridge, P. J. Bauer, Bonnie Jason, and Claudia Bain that continues to be updated and used in schools. There are the lyrics of “What Have We Learned From the Prince William Sound” by Homer songwriter Atz Kilcher and the daunting “shadow lingers” cartoon by Mike O’Meara.
Together, the exhibit reflects the “power of the human spirit to come together and do something,” said Benn Levine, who, along with Muller, worked on the Mars Cove spill cleanup crew following the spill. Muller inspired the committed workers, nicknamed Alaska V.I.C.E., Volunteer Independent Clean-up Effort, by paraphrasing Irish author Edmund Burke with black crude oil written on a scrap of plywood: “There is only one thing necessary for the triumph of evil. That is for good people to do nothing.”
The thousands who attend Salmonfest, an annual three-day music festival in Ninilchik that was begun to raise awareness about the value of Alaska salmon, enthusiastically take part in another expression of Muller’s artivism. With a rodeo arena as a canvas, Muller positions the crowd around banners designed with messages calling for a fair and just climate and the protection of salmon, the waters in which they live, and the fisheries Alaskans depend on.
“Participatory activism,” Bob Shavelson of Cook Inletkeeper calls it.
Homer area residents know Muller for the annual burning basket event she coordinates. For one week toward the end of summer the community is welcome to join Muller at Mariner Beach and weave a large basket of natural materials. Each year the basket is given a theme and the public is invited to tie ribbons onto the basket, tuck messages and prayers among the woven fibers, or attach items appropriate to the theme. At the end of the week, hundreds gather around the completed basket that is then set on fire, the flames lighting the gathering darkness and sending the written messages, prayers and concerns into the night sky.
Of all the baskets she’s facilitated, Muller considers her artivism inspired by the Exxon Valdez spill — the banners, the response of communities directly impacted by the spill, the connection felt by communities hundreds of miles from Prince William Sound, the sadly similar experiences of those in other countries, the thread of story that binds them together — “the biggest basket I’ve ever made in my life.”
As one more piece of that big basket, the K-Bay Caffé exhibit includes “Take Heart,” a woven heart beneath which is a container of ribbons Muller encourages the public to attach to the weaving “in solidarity for the continued healing of all injured and recovering waters, fisheries, cultures, lives and livelihoods left in the wake of devastating oil spills.” The heart will become part of the 2019 Burning Basket in September.
“There is a lot at stake,” Muller writes in her artist’s statement accompanying “Tools,” a mixed media collage that is part of the K-Bay Caffé exhibit. “It is essential that we continue to do our part to safeguard the living essence of Alaska, the land, the air, the water, and all life.”