Written by Mari Heller and Claudia Brock
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While in most parts of America, trash receptacles are not anything note-worthy. However, in Bethel, Alaska the dumpsters around the area are painted in bright colors and are even considered a tourist attraction by the residents of the city.
Reyne Athanas, the current Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center Coordinator, runs the children’s art camp in the summer and is responsible for the dumpsters being repainted annually. With her Masters degree in Fine Arts and her 25 years experience as an art teacher, Athanas uses her expertise to guide over 60 kids during summer art camp sessions through various projects, including painting the dumpsters.
“My sister-in-law, Janet Athanas, with the Bethel Parks and Rec. Department started that [painting the dumpsters] as a contest and that was probably, I want to say 2000. So the best dumpsters in the community got prizes. When Janet started it was communities or individuals would paint them but that kind of stopped, so with the art camp we decided we’d take it over,” said Athanas.
The art camp, which has been holding sessions since 2005 has been growing every summer and offers a week of hands-on arts and crafts projects to children ranging in age from 8-13 years old.
Most institutions in Bethel have their own painted dumpster, like the Bethel Health Clinic and the Cultural Center. Some dumpsters around the city do not belong to an organization but are used to promote a lifestyle choice such as birth control, being active, and engaged parenting.
Because the art camp has become responsible for the maintenance of the dumpsters, Athanas must call around the city before the art camp starts to secure the unconventional canvases for her students.
“I call the people who are in charge of the dumpsters and ask them to drop off I try to get eight per camp but this year they didn’t give us quite that many. So they drop them off, we paint them, they pick them up and put them back,” said Athanas.
Athanas has not heard of any other city or town in Alaska who paints their dumpsters and believes that this form of urban art sets Bethel apart from other communities.
While the dumpsters are made for disposable items, the messages and imagery on the outside of them are forms of lasting beauty in the city.