It has been almost two years since local artist John Coyne crafted six aluminum alloy caribou, boxed up the 16 sculpture pieces and transported them nearly 4,000 miles from Iowa City to Nome, Alaska.
Constantly striving to push his artistic skills to the limit, Coyne is at it once again with a three-dimensional cast aluminum sculpture destined to be displayed later this year the Dena’ina Wellness Center in Kenai, Alaska.
Coyne recently was in his Iowa City workshop — tucked away on Reno Street just south of Oakland Cemetery — constructing the five ravens and woven fish trap that will make up his latest sculpture.
Through his research of Dena’ina culture and natural interest in ravens, Coyne knew combining the iconic birds with the tribe’s words would make for the perfect sculpture. The Dena’ina people were the original inhabitants of south central Alaska.
“The raven brought the Dena’ina people stories and songs and poetry,” Coyne said. “It all seemed to fit together, and plus I love ravens.”
Phil Young, the wellness center’s construction manager and owner’s representation on the project, said the use of ravens was specifically sought for the art project.
“Ravens have a big history with the natives up here,” Young said.
Young said he was surprised to learn that Coyne’s work on the project will be taking place in Iowa City.
“I just assumed that he would be building the sculpture (in Anchorage),” he said.
When finished, the project will include items commonly found in Dena’ina culture, including ravens, a fish trap and plaques engraved with various words of the Dena’ina people including “Ida” and “Yaghanen,” meaning “friend” and “good land,” respectively.
Coyne, a native of Fairbanks, said the sculpture will be transported later this fall to Kenai, more than a three-hour drive south of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula, and reassembled in the Dena’ina Wellness Center.
Although Coyne transported his caribou sculpture to Alaska in 2012 via truck, ferry and plane, he’s going to take an easier route this time and fly the pieces to Anchorage and have them delivered the final 150 miles to Kenai.
“Because I’m making really good time, I think I’m just going to crate these up and have them shipped to Kenai,” Coyne said. “It was great to do it that way last time, and it was an adventure, but this might be a little more expedient and certainly a lot cheaper.”
As with his last sculpture, Coyne’s project was cast by Max-Cast in Kalona. Welding will be completed by Rob Brown in Lisbon, and Coyne’s friend and assistant, known simply as Blue, is helping Coyne craft his art.
Although the process is similar to the caribou project, which was a two-dimensional mural, Coyne’s raven project is entirely three-dimensional and therefore much more complicated.
“When you move out of two dimensions to three dimensions, you have a lot more consideration, a lot more work,” he said.
But Coyne said it will all be worth it when the sculpture is complete and sitting next to work by Ron Senungetuk, another Alaskan artist, who Coyne first met years ago and has had a strong influence on his work.
“He’s one of the Alaska greats. He’s an old master,” Coyne said. “For me, it’s a really big honor to be showing alongside Senungetuk.”