Petersburg museum installs ‘Decolonizing’ bench in municipal building

Ray Troll, Delores Churchill and Donald Varnell describe their work on “Ectoplasmic Salmon Settee #1” at the Petersburg Municipal Building Friday, May 17, 2019. (Photo by Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)
Ray Troll, Delores Churchill and Donald Varnell describe their work on “Ectoplasmic Salmon Settee #1” at the Petersburg Municipal Building Friday, May 17, 2019. (Photo by Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

The Clausen Museum in Petersburg installed a major new piece of public art outside the borough assembly chambers in the municipal building this month, during Petersburg’s Little Norway Festival. The massive painted and carved red cedar bench is the work of four well-known artists from Ketchikan and was part of the Decolonizing Alaska exhibit that toured the country in the past few years.

“Good afternoon everyone, welcome to the museum’s unveiling of Ectoplasmic Salmon Settee #1,” Clausen Memorial Museum board secretary Jessica Ieremia kicked off the installation on Friday, May 17. She explained the bench came to Petersburg with the Decolonizing Alaska exhibit last fall.

“While this bench was on display in the library, this actual piece of art in particular, really got the curiosity and love of the community and so many people in town had the feeling that this bench needed to stay here,” Ieremia said. “And so Roxy Lee got kind of a movement going. And along with Karen Hofstad they raised enough money to purchase this bench and gift it to the museum.”

Three of the four artists — Ray Troll, Delores Churchill and her grandson Donald Varnell — attended the installation. Nathan Jackson also worked on the piece. A “Do Not Sit” sign has been on the bench following its installation. That’s not permanent. Its only there while a final coat of varnish cures.

“It’s sticky,” laughed Churchill as she and the other artists sat on the bench to discuss their work.

“Ectoplasmic Salmon Settee #1” (Photo by Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)
“Ectoplasmic Salmon Settee #1” (Photo by Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

The work is nine feet long and seven feet high, built from old growth red cedar. It’s adorned with twisted cedar bark rope, acrylic paint, fishing line and diamond plate aluminum. The project took shape when Troll sketched out ideas for the bench but handed over the lead on the project to Varnell, who said it was a challenge collaborating with titans of the art world.

“How do you tell Nathan Jackson what to do? You know how do you tell Ray Troll what to do? As a teenager I grew up with these guys, these guys were my heroes,” Varnell explained. “And I was given the opportunity to be the boss but that didn’t work out very well.”

His grandmother, Churchill told a story of Varnell’s frustration.

“I was at home and Donny comes in,” Churchill said. “He said, I hate that piece. I’m going to burn it. I was so mad at him. We never yell at each other. He and I were just yelling and screaming at one another over this piece. He left and the next day he came and of course we forgave one another right away over this piece.”

The work centers around the theme of salmon. Troll painted a king and coho salmon across the back, underneath a full moon. Varnell’s carved bear heads bite into those fish above his colorful cascading river. Varnell said he enlisted his grandmother in the project without her knowing about it. Churchill added a fringe of deer toes underneath the bench.

“I was here teaching quite a few years ago and I was being interviewed on the radio and the announcer asked me if there was anything else he could do for me,” Churchill said. “I said, oh yes, I need deer toes. So, he said well now you’ll get them because you’re on the radio. So I went off, I went home. And then I went on a trip for two weeks. I came back to the post office and the post office said to me Delores, you have to get that stinky box out of here. Apparently the deer toes started to smell and because it was a government post office they couldn’t throw it away. So anyway, it ended up that my deer toes from Petersburg got put on here.”

Troll explained the deer toes are meant to make noise and he joked about the bench’s new home outside the borough assembly chambers.

“Donny had this idea to add the deer toes and I remember when he talked about it, he thought it’d be a fun thing, people could just sit on the bench and just kind of clack, or rub.” Troll said. “So if you’re nervous about what you got to say in there, you sit out here and get all…”

Troll hoped that people would use the spot to sit.

“Well I think it’s a perfect spot like I said for this bench,” he said. “I think it is meant to be used and sat upon and enjoyed, and I hope that the city, the fine citizens here like sitting on it, and we might just do a little, I don’t know, we might support, in case there’s like 15 people on this bench. But really it is meant to be used, utilitarian but it’s an engaging piece of art. Thank you sincerely from the bottom of my heart.”

Nathan Jackson created Tlingit salmon designs on the bench sides, which reflect in the aluminum above. This work, completed in 2014, is the second collaboration for Varnell and Troll.

The 2014 work cost $35,000, was paid for entirely with private donations and was gifted to the Clausen Museum. (Photo by Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)
The 2014 work cost $35,000, was paid for entirely with private donations and was gifted to the Clausen Museum. (Photo by Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

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