The Artist in Action: Mavis Muller
Using Art In Defense of the Planet, People, and the Future
By McKibben Jackinsky
Born in Alaska’s streams and rivers, sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) spend their first years close to home before taking to the Pacific Ocean. 2-8 years later, led by magnetic and celestial orientation, a sense of smell, and a circadian calendar, they return to their natal waters and one generation dies giving birth to the next.
This is a cycle around which Alaskans mark their calendars, find employment, and feed themselves and others worldwide. Most of Alaska’s wild sockeye salmon come from what the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research defines as the world’s most valuable wild salmon fishery: Bristol Bay.
In 2002, Pebble Partnership began plans for North America’s largest copper-gold-molybdenum open-pit mine. Its location within Bristol Bay’s watershed drew strong criticism. What risks did toxic waste and the construction of extensive infrastructure in this remote location pose? Where would water required for the operation be found? What about the area’s seismic instability? How big was the threat to salmon and the Alaskan people?
An initiative to give local control of the mine’s permitting process, sponsored by Save Our Salmon, was due to go to voters near the proposed mine site in October 2011. That autumn, the first annual salmon-themed music festival was held in the Cook Inlet to boost awareness of the proposed Pebble Mine.
Mavis Muller of Homer, Alaska, was there, inviting festival-goers to meet at the rodeo arena for “an action of art.” With bullhorn in hand, she presented her plan for people to get down and dirty, literally. At her direction, participants laid on the arena floor, arranged around Muller’s fabric design of a leaping salmon. The time spent positioning everyone allowed strangers to meet and discuss what was happening, and how they felt about the Pebble Mine project. The tradition has continued, as aerial photographs capture each year’s art in action for the media and public.
With receding glaciers in the background, and oil exploration rigs close by, Mavis creates the message of “Earth Yes!” to accompany her Shell No out of straw bales in her Homer- Alaska yard.
– Photo by Bjorn Olson
“When you invite the audience to be part of the art it becomes a happening. It builds community and empowers individuals, providing a playful reflective space where we can share a creative journey and inspire each other,” said Muller.
Rising Appalachia, Jewel, and Rusted Roots were among the headliners at the 2017 Salmonfest, sponsored by Kachemak Bay Conservation Society and the Cook Inletkeeper. Once again a cornerstone of the event, Muller’s fabric design this time was a leaping salmon with the balanced scales of justice titled Watershed Moment for Climate Justice. This year, about 500 people participated in the human mosaic Action of Art.
According to Muller, “Alaska’s wild salmon are like the ‘canary in the coal mine,’ alerting us to the impact of climate change on the health of our communities and the entire ecosystem. This enactment was meant to send a strong message that together we are shaping a fair and just climate future for generations to come.”
“Actions of art, such as this, assert 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,” adds Muller.
“This type of visual, participatory activism is an important form of education about the health of Alaska’s waterways,” says Bob Shavelson, advocacy director of the nonprofit Cook Inletkeeper. “We come together with a shared concern and make something beautiful with a powerful message. The art is impermanent, but leaves a lasting impression of solidarity with the photo.”
Mavis organizes around 500 people at 2017s Action of Art human mosaic at Salmonfest in Alaska
– Photo by John Newton
When the massive Exxon Valdez spilled more than 10 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound in 1989, Muller joined volunteers on a remote beach, recovering oil-soaked wildlife and mopping up oil that washed ashore. The crew’s motto was painted by Muller with black crude oil on a piece of plywood found on the beach: “There is only one thing necessary for the triumph of evil. That is for good people to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke.
On fabric from homemade booms used in the cleanup, Muller painted seven community banners declaring what Alaskans are fighting to protect. They have appeared in demonstrations on boats and on land and unfurled on anniversaries of the spill. One that reads “Alaskans Still Fighting For the Earth” was pictured on the cover of The Day the Water Died, a book about the Exxon spill. That iconic banner has traveled to museums of art in the United States, Australia, and Spain. Muller also has journeyed to Spain and the Gulf of Mexico, using collaborative art to help others heal from the tragedy caused by similar oil spills.
Muller’s “artivism” has found multiple avenues in and outside of Alaska that bolster “human connections and solidarity in protection and defense of what we love.” Her inspiration is sometimes as close as the view through her home’s windows. Like when two of Shell Oil’s large drilling support vessels docked in Kachemak Bay with the Kenai Mountains’ rapidly receding glaciers in the distance, she arranged bales of hay in her field to spell ‘Shell No” / “Earth Yes.” which was photographed from an aircraft by Bjorn Olson, board member for Kachemak Bay Conservation Society.
In October, 2017, the Trump Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency reversed its cautious stand on the Pebble Mine project, opening the door for the potential development, and increasing the need for Muller’s common language of artivisim.
“Art is communication. With our creativity we can inspire new possibilities, influence sustainable solutions, and we can have fun doing it,” says Muller
McKibben Jackinsky is a lifelong Alaskan, a freelance writer, and the author of Too Close to Home: Living With ‘Drill, Baby’ on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, published by Hardscratch Press in 2016.
For more about Muller’s work visit:
The History of Pebble Mine
The Save Our Salmon initiative passed by a narrow margin of Lake and Peninsula Borough voters in 2011. Both Pebble and the State of Alaska filed suits and in 2014, Superior Court Judge John Suddock ruled the initiative void, saying it “foreclosed the state’s due exercise of its natural resources.”
A 2013 study by the University of Alaska Anchorage Institute of Social and Economic Research’s showed fishermen harvested 29 million sockeye salmon, worth $165 million in direct harvest value, equaling 31% of Alaska’s total salmon harvest and exceeding the combined value of fish harvested in 41 states. The fishery provided 12,000 jobs during the summer season.
In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency put plans for the mine on hold in order to protect the sockeye salmon fishery, saying that a mine “would result in complete loss of fish habitat due to elimination, dewatering and fragmentation of streams, wetlands and other aquatic resources.”
In May 2017, Pebble Limited Partnership CEO, Tom Collier, met with the new EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt. Pebble then issued a press release announcing a resolution that, according to Collier, “establishes a clear path for the Pebble Project to initiate permitting under the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.”
In August, 2017, an op-ed from leaders of the Bristol Bay area read, “We will never support a Pebble mine in Bristol Bay.” An effort is once again being made to let Alaska voters weigh in on resource extraction and protection of fish and game. For more information and to sign the petition, visit StandForSalmon.org.