Seward sees "Return of the Whales"; mural replaces one torn down in 2018

Feb 18, 2021

The mural faces the Alaska SeaLife Center in downtown Seward. (Photo courtesy of J. Leslie)

For years, harsh weather wore down a painted pod of humpback whales in Seward, on a wall across from the Alaska SeaLife Center. 

The piece, “Sea-Ward Bound,” is one of many murals that makes Seward the “Mural Capital of Alaska.” But the wall it was painted on was crumbling and the building owners took it down during repairs in 2018.

Now, the whales are back. Local artist J. Leslie was tapped in 2019 for a mural makeover, and with the Seward Mural Society and a team of volunteers, he gave them new life. “Return of the Whales” went up in October.

“My original thoughts when I first started thinking about getting involved with it was honoring the previous mural that had been there," he said. "Because I loved it, tons of people in town loved it. I mean, there have got to be bazillions of photographs of tourists that have come to Seward that have had that old mural in the background.”

They’re the same whales but in an entirely different style than their predecessors. Those whales, by Seward artists and muralists Justine Pechuzal and Liza McElroy, were more photorealistic. 

Leslie’s art is abstract and geometric. He paints in bold, bright hues, and most of his paintings are of mountains. These whales are made from blue, orange and purple hexagons. 

“Mostly what I’m interested in these days is working with color and having a super bright, energetic color palette that I use," he said. "It always feels a little bit cheesy when I say it, to call things ‘happy colors,’ but we do live in a town that can be, at times, kind of gray and dark, and I certainly don’t find it dismal but it may edge toward dismal for some people at some times. And in my own home, our walls are filled with really bright artwork. And I love it.”

The building houses the restaurant Seasalt and belongs to Elliot Jackson, who owns several businesses around town. He was looking at a steep price tag if he paid for a new mural himself and was glad to have help from the Mural Society.

“And basically it was one of those things where it really helped both of us out, because we really wanted to get the whales back up," he said.

Funding for the project came from private donors and a grant from the Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm Heritage Area. 

Jackson was responsible for installation. He hired a contractor to do it.

The Mural Society helped get a team of 50 or so volunteers together to paint.

They painted on panels that were later mounted onto the wall, rather than the other way around. The previous mural was painted directly onto the wall, which Leslie said contributed to its wear and tear.

“In some ways, something is technically not a mural if it’s not painted directly on the wall," he said. "But it’s really nice to be able to paint a big piece of art on another surface that then gets mounted on the wall.”

They topped the mural off with a tough clear coat.

“I mean, you could shoot a BB gun at these murals now and you’re not going to hurt these things," he said. "Which is great, too, because where the whales are, that wall is just getting hammered with weather all year. And not just weather. It’s getting literally salt spray from the ocean, ’cause it’s only a few hundred yards from the ocean. It’s getting annihilated. And so nothing’s going to last forever. But the way we’re doing murals now, they should last for a very long time.”