Flying salmon: Alaska Airlines unveils its latest traveling canvas featuring formline art by Crystal Worl
A one-of-a-kind Alaska Airlines plane took its maiden voyage with passengers on Friday on a flight from Anchorage to Juneau. The Boeing 737 was well known for its previous design, Salmon-Thirty-Salmon, known as the world’s largest flying fish with a giant salmon stretched across the entire length of the jet.
Now it’s been painted over with a bold Indigenous design from Southeast Alaska, which also has a salmon theme, only it has a school of six fish.
The new design was celebrated at an Alaska Airlines Hangar in Anchorage on Thursday night, where you could still smell the fresh paint.
A group of Tsimshian dancers from Anchorage, Lepquinm Gumilgit Gagoadim, which translates into “Our own Dance in Our Hearts,” performed several dances to welcome the new custom jet.
Marilyn Romano, a regional vice president for Alaska Airlines, says it will help bring Alaska Native art and culture to a wider audience.
“We are just honored that we will take art and fly it around the country everywhere we fly,” she said.
Crystal Worl, an Alaska Native artist from Juneau, is the designer behind this traveling canvas. She is of Lingít, Athabascan, Yup’ik and Filipino heritage and in recent years has become known for the huge scale of her art, with murals in downtown Juneau and another next to Anchorage City Hall. She also recently designed one of the stamps in the US Post Office’s “Art of the Skateboard” series.
Worl says she has dreamed for years of designing the theme for an Alaska Airlines jet in formline, a traditional Northwest Coast style of art, which uses curved lines to create images that tell stories.
“Looking at my art at this scale after seeing it on a tiny little screen for so long, it's different,” Worl said after the plane arrived in Anchorage. “I think I was in awe, disbelief. Breath was taken away.
She and a team of assistants had just come from painting the plane in Houston Texas, a project that took an intense twelve days. The birth of the design actually goes back to 2002.
“I downloaded a template of the Boeing 737, and I superimposed my artwork in it,” Worl said, “because I thought, ‘How cool would it be to see formline on an airplane?”
But Romano said she it was an Alaska Business Monthly magazine with Worl on the cover that got her attention.
“I thought, I think I know who could do something special with a beautiful blank canvas,” Romano said. “And when I got in touch with her, the first thing she said to me was ‘I bet you’re calling about what you saw on Instagram.’”
Even though Worl’s Instagram post did not directly lead to Alaska Airlines choosing her to design the airplane’s new theme, she says it’s all about the power of intention.
“I feel like a part of it is manifesting what I want to see in the world,” said Worl, who advises young people to practice visualizing what they hope to achieve in life, because it will help them draw support from others to realize their dreams.
“When I do a mural, I ask people for help,” she said. “I asked people to donate to crowd sourcing, if I need funding to get paint supplies or to pay my apprentices.”
Worl said this project would have been impossible without support from her family and the community.
“I think I learned that just from subsistence harvesting, you can't do anything alone.”
She says her understanding of what can be accomplished by working together comes from the cultural knowledge of what it takes to gather wild foods and live off the land.
“My grandpa and my grandma, Alice Demientiff and Rudy Demientiff, they had 10 kids and they had no money,” she said. “But my grandma knew how to cut, fillet and prep a salmon in over a hundred different ways. Her grandfather, she said, knew how to hunt, fish, build a boat and a fish wheel.
Worl also says the artwork on the Alaska Airlines jet is much more than a decoration. It not only honors an ancient art form but also the Lingít language.
“The name of the plane is Xáat Kwáani, which means Salmon People,” she said.
She asked X’unei Lance Twitchell, a Lingít language expert, to help her find a name that would describe the sacred relationship Southeast Natives have with the salmon.
“When we talk about Xáat Kwáani, we're talking to them as if they're human beings,” X’unei said. “We can talk to them about how much we respect them, how much we rely on them, how much we love them, want them -- in this reciprocal relationship that goes back thousands and thousands of years.”
Twitchell says the Lingít word for airplane, kaawayík yaagú, means “flying canoe” and evokes images of paddling in the sky. He hopes that new appreciation for the formline style of art will take flight.
“This is one of the finest art forms in the entire world,” he said.
On the Alaska Airlines jet, formline celebrates the the life cycle of a sockeye salmon – from the fish eggs on the tail, to the salmon on the body, connected by a fine pink thread that enters the mouth of the salmon, to represent the oxygen, water and other elements that flow through the fish.
There are six salmon in all, two on the tail, and two on the winglet, the triangular shaped section that stands up on the wing. There's also a fish on each side of the fuselage.
“The beautiful story of it is, how can we better learn from salmon? How can we better observe them and see what they need — and make changes that we need to make, to better protect them and make sure that our salmon runs are doing better,” Worl said.
At the airplane celebration in Anchorage, dancers performed a salmon song. With the jet in the backdrop, they sang and drummed. Some carried sticks with carved salmon that bobbed up and down, a symbol of abundance, but also an expression of the intentionality. Worl says, through her art, she is also expressing a deeply held desire to see the world of the salmon in balance.
But in many places in Alaska, they are not. She spoke of salmon shortages that have affected her relatives on the Kuskokwim River.
Worl says, she envisions a triangle.
“One corner is Indigenous knowledge. One corner is modern day science,” Worl said. “And the third corner is where the two meet, and that’s where we can use technology and our ancestral practices to help learn and study about the salmon, about the water, about what we're doing to the planet, the toxins that we're releasing.”
“There’s a lot we can learn from Indigenous culture,” Worl said. “In subsistence, everyone has an important role. Nobody’s above anyone else.”
And even though her design is Indigenous, Worl hopes it will help all Alaskans come together through salmon.
To learn more about Crystal Worl, watch the Salmon People Aircraft, directed by Alexis Anoruk Salee (Inupiaq), host of Indigefi, a Koahnic Broadcast Corporation program: