Alaska’s Percent for Art in Public Places statute mandates that one percent of construction costs for public buildings are set aside to pay for art installations.
An artist couple in Haines has found success with the program by creating mosaic murals for schools. Sharon and John Svenson created their first Percent for Art mural back in 2008 for Haines School. Since then, they’ve built mosaics for a pool in Juneau and schools in Juneau and Valdez.
Now, they’re working on their sixth Percent for Art project – a mosaic for the Valley Pathways School in Palmer.
“The sound of it is important,” Sharon Svenson said as she cut strips of bright green glass for a 14-by-4-foot mural she and her husband John are making. They started in January and they’re partway done.
“We’re calling it Taking Flight,” John said. “It’s a bunch of ravens on this big panel, and behind the ravens are circular shapes, which could be suns. And in the middle we’ve taken a bunch of strips of colors, and then twisted it and given it this radical swirl.”
Black shards of glass form ravens against bright yellow, pink and green patterned background. The glass is shipped up in sheets from Oregon. The Svensons cut and smooth it into the shapes they need.
Sharon demonstrates how she grinds a square of glass into a circle. She holds up the little green circle that took about two minutes to make. So many tiny pieces go into such a large mosaic. It takes a long time.
The Svensons work about five hours each day for about four months on each project. They meticulously cut, smooth and glue colored glass onto a huge piece of plywood. This kind of work has been their main job for the past few years.
“We take the ideas back and forth, back and forth,” Sharon said. “And then he can actually put it on paper better than I can.”
“I’ll go out and drop the wall size on a sheet of paper and just start drawing on it,” John said. “And you get the cartoon all drawn, then we prepare the plywood. Then you start cutting glass up. Basically you transfer it from the cartoon to the plywood piece by piece.”
Sharon has been a mosaic artist, or mosaicist, for about 15 years.
“It’s colorful. It’s the depth of the color and the sparkle. It’s shiny. It’s beautiful,” she said.
These Percent for Art projects are some of the largest mosaics she’s ever made. She says it is slow work. But when the project is finished, she says it’s “thrilling.”
“It’s awesome, it’s totally awesome,” Sharon said. “I still go into Haines School and go ‘Wow did I do that?'”
Before these projects, John worked primarily as a painter. John and Sharon started working together because the mosaics are too huge for just one artist. They say they’re a pretty good team, they don’t conflict much over creative visions.
The Svensons run a gallery called Extreme Dreams where they sell their artwork. John says usually you just hope your pieces will sell. But with these, there’s more certainty and stability, which is why they keep applying for the projects.
“They pay well,” Sharon said.
“When you’re bound by contract, it’s pretty serious stuff,” John said. “But you know in the end you’re gonna get paid for it.”
“I would say if we could pocket a third of what we’re charging that’s pretty good,” John said. “We’re working in a really expensive medium.”
Once the mosaic is done, the Svensons transport it to the school and install it.
“We never breathe a sigh of relief until it’s on the wall,” John said. “And that’s the high moment of the whole thing. Like, ‘yes we’re absolutely done.’ It’s darn tense.”
Sharon says after all the hours of cutting glass and laying out tiles, they’re glad to see the project done. And they get to watch the excitement of the students when they see the murals for the first time.
“In Valdez they sort of did a double take,” John said. “Little hands would go up, they’re pointing at things in it. The principal later said the reaction has been ‘way cool.'”
Sharon and John plan to keep working on one percent program commissions. They have two more in Juneau already booked, which will keep them busy for the rest of the year.
One day, Sharon hopes she’ll have the time to make a mural like this for their own home.