AK: How a mischievous Home Depot surveyor turned this hill into guerrilla art

The alder trees — and the peace sign among them — at the end of Commercial Boulevard in Juneau are about 10 years old, pictured here on Jan. 8, 2019. The slope was cut and stabilized as part of the construction of the Home Depot. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

In Juneau, a lot of people like Wes Adkins have wondered aloud about this:

“Ever since I moved to Juneau in 2012, I’ve been passing by this gigantic peace sign carved into the vegetation above Home Depot and Costco up in Lemon Creek,” he said. “I’m sure aliens didn’t do this. … Who do I need to thank for this creative work of art for our city?”

He’s got surveyor Garrith McLean to thank. We met up the other day at the end of Commercial Boulevard, next to his handiwork.

“Well, you know, my son and I worked on the Home Depot project, building this. And when we were done, we had this bare hill here, and it just seemed like it would be fun to have some artwork on it,” McLean said.

In 2008, he was working for the construction company that built the Home Depot. Now 63 years old, he’s got long hair and a long beard that sits on his overcoat. It’s mostly gray with ginger roots — think ZZ Top, but with a vibe more like The Dude from “The Big Lebowski.”

Garritt McLean catches his breath along the Lemon Creek Trail on Jan. 8, 2019. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

“Sure! I mean, I’m a giant fan, but I have not been to any of the fan clubs or the drinkathons,” McLean said. (For the record, his look predates the 1998 Coen brothers movie.)

We hiked up a switchback to the top of the peace sign. The slope was steep below us. It’s getting overgrown with alders, but the vertical part of the peace sign is so precisely aligned with Commercial Boulevard that, visually, it still pops.

McLean pointed to a spot a half-mile away where he surveyed the hillside that would be his canvas.

Garrith McLean explains how he applied his expertise as a surveyor to lay out a peace sign on the hill at the end of Commercial Boulevard in Juneau on Jan. 8, 2019. The gap in the alders is the vertical part of the peace sign. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

“I stood at the instrument, way down at the end of the road there —”

“The instrument” is the thing on a heavy tripod that construction crews use that looks like a telescope or chunky camera.

“Yeah, the theodolite. … So what I did was I just calculated the angle, the vertical and horizontal angle for each of the 36 points, at 10 degrees around the circle,” McLean said.

So the circle is really a 36-sided polygon.

Garrith McClean took these surveyor’s notes in 2008 to help lay out the peace sign at the end of Commercial Boulevard in Juneau in 2008. (Photo courtesy Garrith McLean)

“And so that was pretty easy. Just sine and cosine. … Straight trig,” McLean said.

Hear that, high schoolers? Guerrilla art: a practical application for trigonometry.

“The guys ran around on the hill, and they stuck the survey points in the ground all around the circle,” McLean said.

It’s “guerrilla” art because the city owns the land. They didn’t ask permission.

“Well, you know, that was maybe an issue,” McLean said with a guffaw. “So, maybe we should have gotten permission. We didn’t really think or even consider the possibility of it being depicted as graffiti. But it may have been so, in fact.”

Initially, they marked the peace sign with dark topsoil. The hillside was basically bare then, with only a light-colored jute meshing on it for stabilization. He showed me a photo — it’s like someone took a giant Sharpie to the hillside.

The alder trees — and the peace sign among them — at the end of Commercial Boulevard in Juneau are about 10 years old now, pictured here on Jan. 8, 2019. The slope was cut and stabilized as part of the construction of the Home Depot. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

He’s not sure, but he thinks city workers used leaf blowers to clear away the topsoil after a few days. McLean didn’t really maintain it after that. He thinks other volunteers over the years have used the markers still in the ground to clear the brush.

The peace symbol itself was popularized during the Cold War. It’s a representation of the letters “n” and “d” for “nuclear disarmament” in a visual code called semaphore.

That really wasn’t on McLean’s mind.

“It wasn’t necessarily a patriotic or political statement of any kind. It was merely a continuation of my life as I lead it,” he said. “My Volkswagen bus has peace symbols all over it, and it was just part of my heritage, I guess you could say. So it wasn’t anything political.”

Or, as Jeff Bridges as The Dude might have said…

McLean said it was art for art’s sake.

Cue Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me.”

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Jeremy Hsieh is the deputy managing editor of the KTOO newsroom in Juneau. He’s a podcast fiend who’s worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He ran Gavel Alaska for 360 North from 2011 to 2016, and is big on experimenting with novel tools and mediums (including the occasional animated gif) to tell stories and demystify the news. Jeremy’s an East Coast transplant who moved to Juneau in 2008.

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