José Luis Vílchez and Cora Rose with their retired school bus-turned-art and recording studio. (Photo provided by Art We There Yet)

José Luis Vílchez and Cora Rose with their retired school bus-turned-art and recording studio. (Photo provided by Art We There Yet)

‘It’s all about people’

Traveling artists depict Kenai Peninsula across mediums

At a Kenai City Council meeting last week, Kenai Art Center board member Marion Nelson encouraged the group to check out a YouTube video.

It was “remarkable,” she said. Titled “Mural Art & Vibrant History in Kenai, Alaska,” it’s the 29th episode in a series of videos of “two artists on an epic adventure,” part of a project called “Art We There Yet?”

“Art We There Yet?” is the work of artist José Luis Vílchez and songwriter Cora Rose. They, in a retired school bus transformed into a professional studio for both of their mediums, are traveling to 23 countries across the Americas, following the road system, from Alaska to Argentina.

Rose said the “elevator pitch” is a traveling project, creating art and music inspired by the Americas while also connecting with communities through art on the way. They participate in workshops or murals, teach art programs or classes, and use the journey to grow as artists.

In the video recently posted, the pair depict the work being done by nearly two dozen artists, Vílchez included, on the Kenai Art Center’s 2023 mural. The mural, undertaken each winter by artists at the center, is a continuous piece of artwork that stretches all the way around the center’s main gallery space. Each artist paints a section of it.

The video also depicts and explores Old Town Kenai, “where many threads of the town’s history weave together.” The video explores the history of the Dena’ina people, Russian colonization, a burgeoning fishing town and the discovery of oil. Vílchez’s contribution to the mural is a section that displays the life cycle of a Kenai River salmon.

“That’s the best video that I’ve seen done for this area,” Kenai City Council member James Baisden said. “How they portrayed Kenai and the river … it was absolutely fantastic.”

Nelson said that Rose and Vílchez brought a sensitive approach to what they do, especially depicting so much history, “accurately, too, I might add.”

Vílchez said that before setting off on the adventure, he’d already been traveling the world to learn and to see art. Those travels, he said, were “without purpose.” He thought to purchase a school bus and spend a year traveling in it. The idea was realized when he came together with Rose.

Now four years into that one-year trip, he said he thinks they’ve been able to make an impact.

The journey was intended first to begin in 2019, Rose said. But they turned around on their way to Alaska because of the weather. The COVID-19 pandemic further delayed the project’s beginning, but in 2022 they set out in earnest. Again, they almost turned back in Canada, after being delayed by work on a mural, but they decided to continue to the Kenai Peninsula under winter conditions.

Arriving in Seward, they fell in love, Rose said. They realized how vast and large the state is, that they could explore it forever. They had a hunger to meet people and to tell stories. No one said they had to complete their odyssey in a year.

“We gave ourselves the time to feel like we really sunk our feet in,” she said. That’s why they’ve spent two years at “Point A,” after taking three years to get there. Maybe as they continue onward, they’ll find themselves similarly captured in another place.

“This can take as long as it needs to feel like we’ve done the job well.”

Videos posted to their account depict ice skating, jelly making, hiking, fishing and more, mostly on the Kenai Peninsula but also across other parts of the state like Valdez, Talkeetna and Fairbanks.

Despite different climates and locations, Vílchez said that he expects that the many places they visit will not be so different. All are connected by roads, and they’re going to travel them all, “splash color around,” and meet and inspire young people.

Echoing that sentiment, Rose said that their travels are about “recognizing unity,” that no matter where they go, they’ll still be in the Americas.

“We believe we are more similar than we are different,” Vílchez said. As curious travelers, they’re seeking opportunities to know and understand each place in a deeper way — sharing stories as they go.

Participating in Kenai’s mural show, and ultimately producing the video that captured the attention of Kenai City Council members, was a matter of happenstance, Rose said.

While driving the Alcan, they met an artist from Talkeetna. That artist invited them to work on a mural in their community. There, they met people who own a fish camp in Kenai, ultimately visiting Kenai to fish for salmon as depicted in a January video titled “Salmon Fishing on the Kenai River.”

They discovered Old Town Kenai, visited the art center and the church, and were invited to participate in the mural. Rose said they seize every opportunity to see, to interact and to make art.

“It’s all about people,” Rose said. “If you give people space to welcome you, everybody is passionate about showing their place.”

The pair post updates on their adventures to Facebook at “Art We There Yet?” but Rose said they focus a lot on the YouTube account, where they can tell stories and try to bring people into places and knowing. Their videos can be found at “Art We There Yet?”

Reach reporter Jake Dye at jacob.dye@peninsulaclarion.com.

Cora Rose and José Luis Vílchez with their retired school bus-turned-art and recording studio. (Photo provided by Art We There Yet)

Cora Rose and José Luis Vílchez with their retired school bus-turned-art and recording studio. (Photo provided by Art We There Yet)

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