I’ll be honest. My first reaction to Fairbanks, Alaska, after returning from my standard early morning familiarization run around town was something along the lines of, “this place is a dump.”
There’s a lot of gray here; gray corrugated metal, gray buildings, gray industrial structures, gray gravel lots. However, since the most important exploraspective rule is to keep looking until the quirky beauty of a place reveals itself, I went back out later in the day armed with my camera to check out town at a leisurely pace in the blazing high-latitude sun.
I can’t say that the downtown layout and architecture impressed me, and the gastronomic offerings left a lot to be desired, but I found quite a bit of public art. There were a couple of bronze sculptures, a number of monuments, and several murals, but the attractions that most grabbed my attention were the products of the city’s 2012 “Paint the Pipes” project.
The “pipes” in question are utilidor exhaust vents. What’s a utilidor, you ask? Yes. I had to look it up too. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines the word this way: “an aboveground insulated conduit used for general utility service especially in arctic climates.” What makes a utilidor different from any other utility corridor is its placement – utlidors sit above the permafrost but below the surface of the land.
Apparently, Fairbanks has a whole array of stuff in its utilidor. In addition to communication, electric, and gas lines, there’s a while hot water system running below the streets – a system which helps downtown businesses heat their spaces. This infrastructural matrix requires ventilation, accomplished by twenty-three pipes that stick up above the city streets.
These “snorkels” are at least ten feet tall, allowing them to function even when there is significant snow accumulation. Until recently, these pipes were all painted beige.
In 2012, the Downtown Association of Fairbanks solicited designs from artists to paint the previously drab pipes. Businesses closest to the pipes’ locations were given first right of sponsorship for the art on their doorsteps, and their sponsorship enabled them to participate in the design selection process. Thirteen artists were selected and paid $300 for their efforts, and the project was unveiled on September 24, 2012.
The designs depict an array of themes, most of which relate to interior Alaska. One is covered with fish, one with snowflakes, one with fireweed (a common local wildflower) and one with the iconic musk ox. A couple of the pipes portray native Alaskans, and several of them are characterized by a fanciful, cartoon-like style.
One pipe appears to have been partially dismantled. It was called “Marilyn in Bunny Boots.” I know what bunny boots are; in fact, I have worn them. They’re the huge insulated white rubber footwear worn in Arctic and Antarctic climates that enable people to work outside in harsh conditions. I didn’t see any bunny boots on this pipe, or any likeness of Marilyn Monroe; I just saw a solid pink pipe and was left wondering what it looked like in its fully dressed condition. I did find all twelve other pipes, however, thanks to a public art map I found online.
This public art project totally fits this city. Based on my limited experience of Fairbanks, I’d have to say that doesn’t seem like the type of place to host an avant garde light display, an abstract sculpture, or complex glass installation. This is a rough-and-tumble industrial town that sits on the edge of both remote wilderness and intense industrial resource exploitation.
Painting metal exhaust pipes seems about right here.