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Susitna Salmon Center to Host Grand Opening and Community Art Project Wednesday

by Phillip Manning ~ July 22nd, 2014

Artist Katherine England with part of the salmon totem project that will be unveiled at the Susitna Salmon Center on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, the Susitna Salmon Center in Downtown Talkeetna is celebrating its grand opening with fish-themed art and education, and they’re giving the community a chance to pitch in on a special art project.  KTNA’s Phillip Manning visited the Susitna Salmon Center on Tuesday, and has this report:

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One of the things the Susitna River is known for is its salmon.  All five species can be found in the river, and sport fishing is common when state regulations allow.  This week marks the grand opening of the Susitna Salmon Center in Talkeetna.  The Center is on First Street near the ballfield in downtown.  The building contains an art gallery with works by Alaskans as well as an education center.  As part of its grand opening, the Susitna Salmon Center is unveiling a special piece of artwork dedicated to the river’s famous fish.  It’s a six-foot salmon totem with each species represented by a sculpture mosaic.

Katherine England of California put the project together.  She has done a number of projects for non-profits in the past, and says that this was an opportunity for her to not only create a unique, locally themed piece, but to learn more about the subject matter as well.

“I didn’t even know there were five different kinds of salmon, so I had to learn about size, how many fins, how the back moves.  So, we sculpted them exactly as they are.  Having said that, we did take a lot of freedom with patterns and coloring, so we added our own bit of fun.”

Fun is a good descriptor for some of the colors.  One salmon, which Katherine England calls “Princess Banana Pants,” is full of bright, vibrant colors that would be at home on a tropical fish.   Katherine’s daughter, Brontë Nelson, helped out on the project, and is responsible for that particular fish’s colorful look.

“The shape, I think, are pretty accurate.  The colors, we just kind of decided to do our own thing, like salmon from another planet.  Mine looks like a Quinceañera fish.”

In addition to the totem, Katherine England says the community is invited to help out with another piece that will become part of the permanent collection.  It will be set up at the Susitna Salmon Center on Wednesday.

“We’ll be set up there from 10:00 to 3:00.  Anybody walking by, visitors, other people, can add glass, and it will end up as a final piece kind of advertising the Center.”

Katherine England says that people are welcome to add one or two pieces to the mosaic, but warns that it can become addictive.  After the community mosaic creation, there will be a ribbon-cutting at the Susitna Salmon Center.

After I spoke with Katherine England, I took a look inside the Center, guided by Amelia Root.  We started in the gallery on the first floor.

“All this artwork is for sale.  With the exception of three artists…all the artists are Alaskan.  It’s all salmon-focused, for the most part.  We’re trying to celebrate the kind of community that lives off the salmon, and it’s amazing how many artists we have in Alaska.  I was blown away.”

The sale of the artwork and merchandise benefits the Susitna Salmon Center’s education program, as well as the Aquatic Restoration and Research Institute.  There are plush salmon, paintings, and household items all themed around salmon.  Upstairs, the building houses an education center.  Amelia Root says education about salmon is a big reason the Center was founded by biologists Jeff and Gay Davis.

“Our goal is to focus, not only on the social implication of the salmon, as we have downstairs, with the art and the importance that salmon have to both the Native and resident cultures here, but we really want to educate people on the science of the salmon, their habitat, what they eat, how the live, the whole nine yards of it.”

There is a small room where educational videos are shown, a rack with children’s books about fish, and tanks with live specimens.  Amelia Root says the live fish are another valuable education tool.

“We have salmon; we have a lot of resident fish, as well. We have permits to trap and keep the fish, so we’re really lucky that we can have these up here.  They’re a great way–not a lot of people understand that there are juvenile salmon in the river at all times, so it’s a great way to see baby salmon.”

The education center is still a work in progress.  While Amelia and I were speaking, another employee was adjusting the pump in one tank, and bringing more art upstairs for the walls.  Still, there is already some interesting material to see.  Among the videos shown in the education center are “Damnation” and “Running the Gauntlet,” both of which deal with the impact of dams in the Lower 48.  Amelia says that the Susitna Salmon Center and the Aquatic Restoration and Research Institute do not take an official stance on the Susitna-Watana project because of ARRI’s involvement in reviewing research.

“ARRI has done some work with Fish and Game, reviewing the science behind the dam.  They’re trying to keep it neutral; they can’t be pro or against it, and they’re hoping the science wins out.”

The grand opening events for the Susitna Salmon Center start on Tuesday at 7:00 with a presentation by Katherine England at NSI, and continue Wednesday from 10:00 to 3:00 with the community mosaic.  After that will be the ribbon cutting and official grand opening.  More information is available by calling 733-FISH.

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