Mad Hesler has always noticed the tiny stuff.
The Wrangell artist and business owner of Tongass Resin grew up in northern New Hampshire in the White Mountains, and first came to Alaska in 2015 for a summer job as a camp counselor in Cooper Landing on the Kenai Peninsula when she was a junior at Plymouth State University, majoring in outdoor education.
She had to return to New Hampshire for college, but Hesler, 27, said she “had this huge sense of, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be.’”
Hesler graduated in 2016 and came back to Alaska, working in the communities of Aniak, Chuathbaluk and Crooked Creek in western Alaska to set up summer programming for kids. She came to Wrangell the winter of 2017, after she applied to work at Alaska Crossings as a field guide and got the job offer with a month to prepare. She worked at Crossings for five years, and was exposed to the biodiverse world of Southeast Alaska.
If you’re not really looking, Hesler said, the Tongass all looks green. But you have to look closer. “I’ve always been super fascinated by the microworld that exists beneath our feet.”
The kids she guided in Crossings would show her things, too, like “the tiny worlds that exist on one rock.”
Hesler’s affinity for those tiny worlds nudged her to experiment and do some reading on resin epoxy art. That led her to start Tongass Resin in 2019.
Resin is a difficult and sticky medium, she said. When you pour, you only have a half hour to place the elements before it dries. She wears a respirator mask when she pours the liquid epoxy into molds holding leaves or other items.
Hesler said she can do a pour a hundred times, and one thing can go wrong and set the pour awry. Drying the plants long enough is key.
She likes having the option to move slow, so it’s a challenge. “I hate games or tests that are timed.” She’s gotten a lot better at prepping the art and how she wants it laid out before she pours the resin.
Hesler makes earrings, rings, necklaces, trays, light switch covers, combs, bowls and more — all with little pieces of the Tongass laced through, thinner-than-tissue-paper flower and leaf preservations, even salmon teeth and jawbone.
When people wear her jewelry, she said, they know they are wearing the Tongass. Her customers are located mostly in the U.S. and Canada. Hesler grew up on the East Coast and had never heard of the Tongass, so it’s meaningful to her to know that her customers are aware this beautiful place exists through her art.
“My favorite part of art is sharing it with people,” she said. “I’ve been able to meet people through the community. Art brings joy and happiness. “
What’s also important to her is protecting the Tongass.
“I’m for small-scale logging. I’m not an idealist,” Hesler said. “People need to make money, but do it in a sustainable way, not by cutting down 10,000-year-old trees.”
Hesler has “Keep the Tongass Roadless” on her business cards. Some people scoff when they pick up her cards at community markets, she said. People have told her she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. But she stands by what she feels.
“I’ve slept under trees that are 500 years old, and I’ve walked through clear-cut. It’ll be another thousand years before (those trees) are back to being what they were.”
After being a small business owner in Wrangell since 2019, and living here since 2017, Hesler is moving to Valdez in April to work at Anadyr Adventures, doing glacial kayak tours.
“It’s difficult being a young woman here who is not married. I always get the most nervous at community markets. I hope people are not judging me,” she said. While she does value the community, and it’s “been wonderful in so many ways,” Hesler said she wants to move somewhere she can see herself making a home, and have more of a community of like-minded young people as well as the infrastructure to go skiing or boating “without having to own a $60,000 boat.”
Living in Wrangell has helped her humanize people in a politically diverse place, but she wants to live somewhere where she can share what she feels.
The election year was discouraging for her, to think about staying in Wrangell long term. “People threatened me because I had a Black Lives Matter sign in my yard,” Hesler said. The closure of Crossings further solidified she was making the right move.
“It brought people to this town who were young. Wrangell is teetering on the edge of dying and disappearing, or becoming this amazing place. We need life here. We need people with different ideas.”