It’s the darkest part of winter in a very dark year marked with loss, anxiety, economic worries, political upheaval and isolation. We’ve been asking Alaskans where they find inspiration, hope and comfort on their bleakest days. Many of them said they turned to art — music, literature, film and spiritual texts — to help get through it.
Here are their answers.
Dr. Anne Zink – Chief Medical Officer of Alaska
Her Choice: Her daughter’s fourth grade self-portrait
Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink is known for her expansive grasp and no-nonsense delivery of facts about the coronavirus as she guided Alaska’s pandemic response.
But she’s also a visual arts disciple. She studied fine art as an undergraduate, even designing a course on the chemistry of printmaking. To her, art and science have always gone hand-in-hand.
“They’ve always been just the yin and yang of the same thing. I couldn’t have one without the other,” she said.
The piece she chose, a painting done by her daughter in fourth grade showing a colorful “Picasso-esque” face, hangs right by her home office.
Listen to Part 1 of this series, featuring Dr. Zink and Anchorage Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson:
“The eyes are different. The eyebrows are different. The colors are different, depending on which side of the face you look at, and I’ve always valued that: Seeing a challenge from multiple perspectives, not just seeing it from one perspective,” she said.
The left eye in the painting looks inward at an impossible angle toward the center of the face, while the right eye gazes straight ahead. Zink compares it to her work navigating complex challenges during the pandemic, which take both knowledge of scientific data and an understanding of social dynamics for issues such as a statewide mask mandate.
For all the value modern science has, including a vaccine, medicine is about a lot more than the black-and-white equation of having a disease and finding the cure, she said.
“Medicine is not that dichotomous. It is the art of medicine. And it is nuanced. And it is subtle,” she said.
Julie Decker – Director of Anchorage Museum
Her choice: Documentary film “Spaceship Earth”
Anchorage Museum Director Julie Decker said her salve for 2020 was a documentary film that came out in May.
“Spaceship Earth” follows an experiment performed on Earth in the early 1990s to test the feasibility of colonizing another planet. Eight people lock themselves inside a closed environment called Biosphere 2 for two years. To survive, they learn to garden vegetables and bake bread. Decker said that there are obvious parallels to the quarantining many Alaskans experienced in 2020. Unsurprisingly, things get tense among Spaceship Earth’s residents after a few months.
“What happens when people live in isolation with each other, or from each other?” she said. “I think it’s a fascinating psychological experiment.”
But Decker said the Biosphere 2 complex resonated with her beyond the obvious COVID quarantine parallels. The long days at home during the pandemic got her thinking more and more about another existential crisis: global warming. She said the film’s ambitious project got her to think big, even while stuck in a house that felt small.
“Through the pandemic, I felt that hunger for vision, for big thinking. We are living through a moment of deep personal, professional, global change,” she said. “Where are we going to let it take us?”
There was one last piece of the film that stood out to her: A cameo appearance by former Trump advisor Steve Bannon. A young Bannon, fresh out of a Wall Street job, appears in the film to salvage the Biosphere 2 project after the completion of the two-year experiment, touting the virtues of sustainable ecological living.
“It’s another parallel, in a way, to our moment, because politics has dominated this year as well,” she said. “How strange our world is.”
Celeste Hodge Growden – President of Alaska Black Caucus
Her choice: The Bible’s Romans 8:28.
Alaska Black Caucus President Celeste Hodge Growden chose an older work of art — much older. It was a verse written two thousand years ago, Romans 8:28: “In Him know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”
Growden’s organization, the Alaska Black Caucus, was reorganized at the end of 2019. When George Floyd was killed by police officers in Minneapolis in May 2020, sparking worldwide protests against racism, the verse reminded her that her work was part of a larger plan.
“Without this verse, nothing makes sense. And you know, you crumble, you get offended, you get angry, you don’t understand things,” she said.
Listen to Part 2 of this series, featuring Celeste Hodge Growden, Samuel Johns, and Julie Decker:
Growden said while 2020 has helped awaken many to systemic racism in the U.S., it hasn’t been an easy year for her. She grieved the loss of her mother, who died late in 2019. And she’s received threats and hate mail because of her positions on issues such as police body cameras. Remembering Romans 8:28’s words about following her purpose has kept her centered.
“It’s nothing that you planned,” she said. “But it’s everything that God planned.”
Samuel Johns – Activist, social worker, artist
His choice: Video “Ghengis Khan – Extra Credit“
Activist, social worker and musician Samuel Johns also found direction for his Indigenous healing work from world history. But his inspiration came from an unorthodox source: a cartoon history of Mongol Emperor Genghis Khan.
“If anyone said, ‘Man, one day, you’re gonna be in quarantine and you’re gonna fall in love with the Mongol Empire,’ I’d be like, ‘That sounds like the most wacky shit I ever heard,” Johns said.
The video is from a channel called Extra Credit that he started watching to help his kids with history lessons. He acknowledged that while Genghis Khan has often been typecast as a heartless murderer, when he learned more about his story, Johns started to see admirable parts of how the Mongol empire ruled.
“They fought wars, and they defeated armies, but they let the people keep the language and eat. They kept their scholars, they kept their teachers, and they made sure that their books were protected,” he said.
Khan also instituted policies to keep everyone fed and made sure portions of all war booty were reserved for widows and children.
Those lessons struck deep for Johns as he pondered the legacy of colonialism during this summer of racial reckoning.
“I’ve grown up in a disproportionate place, where there was a lot of alcoholism, there was a lot of domestic abuse, there was a lot of things that I could not save people from,” he said.
Hearing the story of one of the world history’s most powerful rulers helped him imagine a world where he had a bit more control over his life, in a world not governed by white colonizers.
“The fact that Genghis Khan was able to create his own laws for his own people — that’s what I want for my people,” he said.
Austin Quinn-Davidson – Acting Anchorage Mayor
Her choice: Brandi Carlile live performances
Anchorage’s Acting Mayor Austin Quinn Davidson said the music of Brandi Carlile was an escape from the realities of the pandemic.
Quinn-Davidson said she’s fallen back on the music of singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile at several points since unexpectedly taking the helm of Alaska’s largest city. Her wife bought her tickets to a virtual concert earlier this year.
“Halfway through, I found myself kind of lost in the moment, and just singing along and thinking about all these memories I had about, you know, being at a music festival, and the open air, and it being warm,” she said.
Quinn-Davidson and Carlile both come from small rural areas, are roughly the same age, and both married to women. Feeling connected to someone through concerts at home was powerful through the loneliness of work — or when isolating after testing positive for COVID-19.
“She brings such honesty and authenticity to her music, and she tells the story of hard parts of life,” Quinn-Davidson said.
Those messages hit home this year. The lyrics to 2018 song “Most of All” — “But most of all/He taught me to forgive/How to keep a cool head/How to love the one you’re with” — reminded her of lessons she’s learned.
“Music is a tool to remember that ultimately, what it’s about is kindness, and love, and treating people with respect,” Quinn-Davidson said.
And when she finds herself the target of political vitriol, listening to Carlile reminds her we all share a lot more of the human experience than we sometimes remember. And it reminds her things will pass.
“In the context of 2020, and the pandemic, and all of these challenges — those are cyclical, too. We will get out of this … eventually,” she said.
If you’d like to share something that’s helped you get through the pandemic and why — or someone you’d like to hear from in our series — send an email to email@example.com.