AK: Bristol Bay artist paints to create hope for young offenders

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Bristol Bay artist Apayo Moore. (Photo by Hannah Colton/KDLG)

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Bristol Bay artist Apayo Moore has painted murals in Anchorage and Juneau. Moore recently received a grant from the state’s “Percent for Arts” program to paint two 60-foot murals that will be shipped up to Bethel in the fall to be installed in the youth detention center there.

The artist hopes her murals will bring hope to young people who’ve committed offenses in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region. Her outreach starts much closer to home in the village of Aleknagik.

When you walk into Apayo Moore’s temporary studio, the first thing you see is a fire truck. The red engine belongs to the City of Aleknagik, which is renting out their shop building for Apayo’s project.

Artist Apayo Moore documents all her visitors. She tries to capture a toddler's attention during a recent visit. (Photo by Hannah Colton/KDLG)
Artist Apayo Moore documents all her visitors. She tries to capture a toddler’s attention during a recent visit. (Photo by Hannah Colton/KDLG)

The space is tall and airy, and while Apayo’s there, it’s always open to visitors.

“Hello? Come in!”

Today it’s a couple of homeschool families who live nearby. The four teenage girls are wearing their painting clothes, and Apayo is always happy to get other people involved. So she puts them to work.

“…and then I’ll need one person on the roller action doing a second layer on this green.”

“I’ll do that!”

Apayo is a Yup’ik woman in her early thirties. She grew up in Twin Hills and Dillingham, and her art often conjures visions from a Bristol Bay childhood. This mural stretches the entire length of the shop wall.

“The idea behind it was that, you know, your grandparents are sitting around the table drinking coffee … there’s that sound of laughter, and you’re kinda eavesdropping and if they’re speaking Yup’k then you’re kinda wondering what they’re talking about, and then you hear your name. So it’s supposed to be a happy uplifting coffee time.”

So far the grandma-grandpa figures with their coffee mugs are just color-blocks of blue and yellow and tan, but already they look pretty jolly.

“When I look at them, then I’ll start smiling back at them, so that’s been sort of a philosophy, I did that intentionally. I made all these guys smiling, hoping that the kids that are in the room will also smile when they see these big smiling faces.”

She’s talking about the kids at the Bethel Youth Facility, where these panels are going to be installed in a few months. But her smile-trick seems to be working already, on her helpers in the warehouse.

Logan Ball and Aubrey Romo of Aleknagik paint a base layer on Apayo Moore's mural, which will depict chuckling, storytelling elders with subsistence scenes in the background. (Photo by Hannah Colton/KDLG)
Logan Ball and Aubrey Romo of Aleknagik paint a base layer on Apayo Moore’s mural, which will depict chuckling, storytelling elders with subsistence scenes in the background. (Photo by Hannah Colton/KDLG)

Aubrey Romo is 17. She’s painting a jacket on a man wearing a trucker hat. She says he reminds her of one of the locals here in Aleknagik

“Ok, ok, I pick Steve, because he’s got the blue shirt and the coffee, and maybe he’s about to go plow a road for the morning or something. That’s what I imagine.”

“This is a person you know?”

“Yeah, he’s the go-to man around here.”

Aubrey and the other three aren’t what you might think of as typical high schoolers. They’re polite and enthusiastic, with great attitudes. They’ve done all kinds of activities through their homeschool program –knitting, beading, pottery, even surfing and snowboarding.

Still, 13-year-old Hildi Ball says hanging out at Apayo’s mural project is pretty special.

“I actually never thought I’d meet Apayo. You can see Apayo paintings all over town, I was like wow she must be a celebrity here and then I met her and I was like *gasp* she’s… just another person, that’s so cool.”

“Whenever you guys feel like you’re at a good stopping point, call it good.”

Before the girls leave, Apayo lines them up for photo to post on her Instagram.

“okay, say whee!”

“WHEEE!”

She says she posts the pictures because she wants people to understand that being an artist is a legit career option – even out in the Bush.

“I love it when people stop by, I like it when people are inspired. Or, even when they start getting competitive, it makes it even better! Because I know that’s how I started, was looking at what other people were doing, and realizing what they were getting paid for it, and thinking, well gosh, I might be able to I could do that even better! So I’d like people to think that way, especially in Dillingham. I want the art community to really step it up.”

Apayo’s previous works are all over down town Dillingham they’re projects that often took a lot of organization and gathering community inpur… But she has two young kids now, and not nearly as much time on her hands.

“I’ve slowed down a little bit, quite a bit. So I want someone else to take that.”

There are plenty of plain walls left in Bristol Bay, she points out. And there’s room for different voices.

“Some people get a little bit darker, so maybe there’ll be something who makes you think a little bit more, you know? Maybe someone will go off of what I’ve been doing and go the opposite and try to get people thinking about how to make other changes… Like I might be missing something, just because I’m into subsistence and fishing and things like that, what else is there that we love about this area? Or, what else is there to say about Bristol Bay? I think it’d be cool to see someone else’s mural up.”

There’s a saying – and Apayo seems to get it: “you can’t be what you can’t see.” That’s part of why she’s painting the mural here in the village, in full view of her neighbors.