After flailing at mosquitoes and sloshing shin-deep through silty water so cold it hurts, the little band of artists schlop-schlop-schlops through the mud, keeping an eye on the tide.
Then they drop their bulky bags and get to work as motorists on a bridge gawk.In minutes, the brown of the vast mud flats is broken by row upon row of color. A plethora of pink, a bevy of birds--a phalanx of flamingos. Plastic in the mud. The transformation becomes art, courtesy of The Flamingo Institute.
"This is the result of a long Alaska winter," Robert Wick said with a grin. He and fellow art teacher H.J. Slider founded the "institute" a year-or so ago. They prefer to call themselves curators. "We wondered what we could do as artists to break up the monotony."
They acquired about 100 plastic flamingos of the yard variety and periodically set up the flock in unusual places, for art's sake or for money. But they say they are performance artists, serious artists--in the same vein as Christo, the sculptor who periodically wraps islands or bridges with plastic and fabric.
In the mud of Knik River, the chevrons of flamingos are slashes of color. Cars slow down. Occasionally one honks.
One minute the birds are there. The next, with the tide changing, they are back in their bags and headed for high ground as art gives way to Mother Nature.
Slider said she sees the flamingos not as birds but as a way to splash pink across Alaska's drab wilderness. Flamingos just happen to be the medium to transport the color. They're handy and durable and versatile," she said.
Wick said he sees the birds as a way to inject satire and humor into art.
"We're not dealing with it as flamingo formations. We deal with it as a color," he said. "There's a whole lot of absurdity in this, the height of kitsch. But you can turn it around and make a statement with it. The bottom line is, I guess, pure aesthetics."
The institute claims about a dozen active members and a few dozen supporters. The active memebers ante up $10.
For about $50, the institute in the past has set up about a dozen "flamingoings" for birthdays, weddings or other occasions. "About four were more serious art pieces. The rest were commercial," Wick said. "The only reason we do these gags is to get money. We're raping our art to get more flamingos."
The birds, bought at $8 a pair made their first appearance in August, on Anchorage's park strip where they were set up like an orchestra, Wick said.
With a few exceptions, the institute workers have had few problems setting up the flock. A state Department of Fish and Game worker questioned them about having a permit when they set up the flamingos in a bird refuge south of Anchorage, and officials refused permission for an installation up on top of a visitors center in Anchorage.
"They said we were an irresponsible group," said institute member Alice Gant.
Once the birds are set up, institute members usually hover nearby to protect their flock. "People will carry them away," Slider said.