Earth and Fire: the Summer Solstice

The homestead in summer

The homestead in summer

Summer has come to the island, and the sun beats down from on high on the dry grass. Pollinators buzz their way through a sea of blackberry flowers, and the fir forests grow fragrant with the scent of warm sap. I have been digging in the earth, three, four, five feet deep, looking for clay. I found the clay: dense, gray, and sticky, a marvelous substance that can be molded to any form, liquefied in water, or baked to brick in the sun.

I had seen ovens made of earth, and I wanted to make one. A year ago in Alaska, I helped Jimmy Riordan, Michael Gerace, Jesus Landin-Torres III and Sara Frary, and many others build an earthen egg, a chamber of contemplation, on a rocky beach. That experience kindled a flame inside me, a great curiosity about this way that you could build things out of dirt. I have often wondered about my acrylic paints, how they’re made and where they come from… what if I could just make art out of the earth beneath my feet?

I decided to build an oven, because I love bread, and pies, and pizzas, and everything else that comes out of ovens. Fortunately for me, Kiko Denzer and Hannah Field have written an excellent book that shows how anyone can do this. Build Your Own Earth Oven is an indispensable guide, ancient knowledge brought back from the brink of forgetting, and woven together with new knowledge and innovation. I have known these two since I was a boy, and finally reading their book was second only to enjoying their company in person.

So I dug up clay, and I shoveled gravel, I cut wild grasses and scrounged old bottles. I pried big beautiful stones out of the ground for the foundation, glacial gems of granite and limestone. I trod the mud with my feet, then poked and prodded it into lumpy forms approximating my vision. I shoveled horse and cow dung out of fields, mixed it with clay, and smeared the fragrant gray-green frosting into fanciful patterns to please the eye. Who knew that grazing animals manufacture a durable and versatile plaster? People living in mud houses all over the world have known this for thousands of years…

At last the oven is finished, somehow  just in time to bake bread and feed friends on the longest day of the year.

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Surviving the mild winter

When I first set up my yurt here on San Juan last spring, a grizzled old islander looked me dead in the eye and said “Have ya spent a winter out here in that thing?”. Well, no, I hadn’t. Given that I had spent a winter in that thing in Homer, Alaska, another winter in Bellingham, and another in Alger, I was not overly concerned. But everyplace has its quirks of microclimate, and every tribe of locals is acutely aware, and proud of, its unique challenges.

Fortunately, the unique microclimate of the San Juan Islands is mild even by the temperate standards of the Pacific Northwest. A little less rain than the mainland, and a little less frost.  Just a few days ago, as less fortunate people somewhere far to the east were bracing themselves for an epic blizzard, I was digging in the garden with my shirt off. “Juneuary” as the CBC dubbed our little warm-weather vacation.

Through recent forays into furniture-making, the yurt is gradually getting more comfortable:

A bed and a bookshelf

A bed and a bookshelf

My growing museum of specimens and oddities, those of marine origin on the left and terrestrial on the right.

My growing museum of specimens and oddities, those of marine origin on the left and terrestrial on the right.

Plenty of books to pass the long winter evenings, and maps to stay oriented in the complex geography of the Salish Sea region.

Plenty of books to pass the long winter evenings, and maps to stay oriented in the complex geography of the Salish Sea region.

This is 'Bageera', a 1979 Ford Ranger that I recently inherited from my friend Loren Schaumberg, who had it for a long time. This is a special truck.

This is ‘Bageera’, a 1979 Ford Ranger that I recently inherited from my friend Loren Schaumberg, who had it for a long time. This is a special truck.

On a recent visit to the Willamette Valley, I had time for filling in a new sketchbook:

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A glorious bit of public art in downtown Portland

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A massive American chestnut in Sellwood, one of a pair situated next to a Montessori school. Every child should be so fortunate.

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Notes from the wood carving shop of

Notes from the wood carving shop of Kiko Denzer

The view south-west from Fitton Green, with Mary's Peak shrouded in clouds

The view south-west from Fitton Green, with Mary’s Peak shrouded in clouds

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A skillful portrait of a wood duck by Eben Denzer, a promising young artist/ornithologist

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Looking south-east from Fitton Green, across the Willamette Valley toward Eugene

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A large Garry oak at at Fitton Green.

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Eben generously gave me this drawing of King Aragorn, in exchange for a drawing of Gandalf.

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Island Home

As spring approaches, I am setting up cold-frames, taking cuttings of seaberry, autumn olive, and fig,  scheming ponds and orchards, and being awoken in the night by the frenzied mating calls of foxes in the meadow…

September is another season…

It has been a wonderful two months now that I have been back on San Juan. On September 6th, I was present at the wedding of my old crewmate Dane Caldwell & Selva Wohlgemuth. As a gift for them I made a pair of painted plates at Johnny Picasso’s in Anacortes. Dane taught me a lot about longlining, such as: how to skin an octopus, how to eat raw sea urchin uni while coiling groundline, how to dress halibut, etc. I had a lot of fun with these plates and I am thinking of doing more ceramic painting projects in the future…

On the left, black cod fishing, and on the right, halibut fishing.

On the left, black cod fishing, and on the right, halibut fishing.

After that, I went along for a week with several good friends on a sailing trip from San Juan up into the Gulf Islands of BC. The weather was incredibly sunny and calm, not allowing much sailing, but we contented ourselves with hiking, sunbathing, picking apples and plums in the old orchard on Prevost Island, gathering oysters, fishing for lingcod, diving for crabs, and generally having a good time.

The moon over James Bay, Prevost Island

The moon over James Bay, Prevost Island

Scenes from Wallace Island

Scenes from Wallace Island

A burly old Madrona on Tent Island

A burly old Madrona on Tent Island

I recently started working part time as an assistant for the sculptor Matthew Gray Palmer (matthewgraypalmer.com). This incredibly skilled and talented artist just happens to live and work in Friday Harbor. I consider myself one lucky individual to get paid to spend time in Matthew’s workshop of wonders, learning new things every day about bronze, concrete, steel, moulding, casting, welding, and more. It’s like everything I ever dreamed of doing in art class as a kid, multiplied by 100.

The studio, with a stainless steel work in progress looming over a curious-looking piggy bank.

The studio, with a stainless steel work in progress looming over a curious-looking piggy bank.

Maquettes from old projects gathering dust as they oversee our work.

Maquettes from old projects gathering dust as they oversee our work.

My bike outside the studio.

My bike outside the studio.

Best of all has been spending time on the 5 acres at the foot of Cady Mountain that I now call home, hewing logs for a shed and dreaming and scheming of a thousand different things to come. Most of all I think of all the trees I want to grow here: walnuts, chestnuts, filberts, monkey puzzle, figs, mulberries, seaberries, medlars, plums, black locust, perhaps even a few hardy olives like the folks over on Pender and Saturna islands (http://olivetrees.ca/). It will be a long process with lots of hard work and challenges along the way. I am looking forward to being here:

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Going Home

After a fairly average salmon fishing season aboard the Sea Mist in Prince William Sound, I am back in Homer for a few days before going home to a yurt and 5 acres on San Juan Island. The Sound is as beautiful as ever, glaciers blazing under the midnight sun one minute, wrapped in fog and rain the next. There was time for the occasional dip in a fjord as well as berry-picking excursions in the rainforest. The fishery seems for the most part the same as the last time I was there in 2010, with the addition of more boats lured by big hatchery pink runs. There is a sense that the ‘gentleman’s fishery’ in which fishermen know and respect each other, is becoming afflicted with more greed and obliviousness. Although not every permit is actively fishing at this point, the common sentiment among long-time Prince William Sound seiners seems to be that there are ‘too many boats’.

With so many boats waiting for a turn to set on any given point, I had a some time to put my colored pencils to work in trying to capture the unique landscapes of the Sound.

 

F/V Miss Molly in Sawmill Bay

F/V Miss Molly in Sawmill Bay

"The Slide" Sawmill Bay, Evans Island

“The Slide” Sawmill Bay, Evans Island

Montague Island

Montague Island

Sugarloaf Mountain, Port Valdez

Sugarloaf Mountain, Port Valdez

Alder-covered mountains in Port Valdez

Alder-covered mountains in Port Valdez

Beaver Nelson, legendary Prince William Sound fisherman

Beaver Nelson, legendary Prince William Sound fisherman

South Twin Bay, Elrington Island

South Twin Bay, Elrington Island

Cabin Fever: four days of closed fishing, sitting on anchor in nonstop pouring rain and howling wind, produced such elaborate daydreams

Cabin Fever: four days of closed fishing, sitting on anchor in nonstop pouring rain and howling wind, produced such elaborate daydreams

F/V Sea Mist going home

F/V Sea Mist going home

Some reflections from life on the boat:

Day off, reading

How many words can you pour into your head?

How deeply can these drops of information soak down

into the subsoil of your brain

before it becomes fully saturated

and they run in rivulets down the side of your head

to join the rushing streams, the roaring torrents

of continual human forgetfulness.

I am collecting rainwater in a roast pan.

A section of plywood in the fo’c’sl has become entirely saturated.

Here in Prince William Sound, in South Twin Bay, on August 8th

it seems as if some aqueducts in the sky have burst  open.

In the snug household of my bunk

the rain invites itself in.

 

 

Alaskan Summer

I have been in Homer, Alaska for almost a month now, and tomorrow I am going to Prince William Sound on the F/V Sea Mist, to spend the rest of the summer chasing salmon among the fjords. The midnight sun is here in abundance, bringing with it an explosion of plant life, animal energy, and waves migrating visitors: squawking cranes, leaping salmon, and  human seekers and adventurers of all kinds.

It has been good reconnecting with friends old and new here in this small coastal community, this self-styled ‘cosmic hamlet by the sea’… Even though my home is now down south among the Doug fir and madrona by the Salish Sea, I will always remember this place and these people.

While in Homer I stumbled upon a great community art project called Searching for the Sublime at the End of the Road. I helped Michael Gerace, Jesus Landin Torres III, Jimmy Riordan, Sarah Tonin, and many others to build a hive-shaped adobe cenotaph on Bishop’s Beach. It was a great learning experience in mud, sand and teamwork, and also a labor of love that suddenly and poetically climaxed when a storm-surge washed away most of the cenotaph a day or two after it was fully fired and complete. We knew it would be ephemeral, but the swiftness of the ocean in reclaiming its dominion over the beach made it that much dearer to our memories. I must also thank Asia Freeman and Michael Walsh at Bunnell Arts Center for bringing this project to Homer, and for all the other great things they are working on at the gallery and in Old Town. If you are ever in Homer, take a long walk down Bishop’s beach, get a loaf of bread at Two Sisters, stop into Bunnell to see some fascinating art, consider a tattoo at A Muse Ink, get a good book at the Mermaid cafe/ Old Inlet bookshop, have some bouillabaisse at Maura’s… you won’t be disappointed.

I am now looking forward to spending another summer in the labyrinth of rain-drenched islands and fjords that is Prince William Sound, among salmon, bears, deer, eagles, jellyfish, kelp, and the constant radio gossip of the seine fleet. When the days get shorter and the pink salmon are gone, then it will be time to go home to San Juan Island, to blackberries, plums, apples, winter squash, and good friends that I miss.

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Seeker at the end of the road

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Faces of the Down East Saloon

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The ubiquitous Pushki

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The Sea Mist, built in 1976

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Sketches, with a figure copied from Arthur Rackham

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Drawing by Karma

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Last day in Washington, views of the Salish Sea

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Miscellaneous sketches

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A memory of India

Bird's eye view of the cenotaph site

Bird’s eye view of the cenotaph site

Looking out from the alder grove by the creek, cenotaph under construction below

Looking out from the alder grove by the creek, cenotaph under construction below

firing the cenotaph

firing the cenotaph

inside

inside

after the storm

after the storm

Island Spring

Mother Mouse

Mother Mouse

Now I am living in my yurt on San Juan Island, on a south-facing slope at the foot of Cady Mountain. Awakening each morning to innumerable birdsongs all around, walking outside through waves of tiny wildflowers and the rising tide of nettles, grass, and brush, I have been taking time to watch the bustling insects pursue their mates. Tomorrow I am going to Alaska to prepare for the Prince William Sound pink salmon fishery, but I will be back to this island Eden when the blackberries ripen in September. I have been drawing and painting as always, going back into a simple mode of observation and reflection.

Fishery Point, Waldron I.

Fishery Point, Waldron I.

Beach Camp

Beach Camp

E & M

E & M

Town

Town

Open Mic

Open Mic

Observations (large bug at upper right copied from Aaron Horkey)

Observations (large bug at upper right copied from Aaron Horkey)

Faith, that the sun will rise tomorrow.

Faith, that the sun will rise tomorrow.

 

Home Improvement for a Friend

My friend Kyle of the Hub Bike Co-op recently approached me about doing a small painting for the bathroom in his house. It seemed like rather an odd request, until I got there and saw that the entire house has has been lovingly remodeled in bold cheerful colors with a quirky and endearing sense of design. Kyle has put a lot of skill and creativity into the place, especially the little bathroom. Check out the beautiful tilework in the shower:

2014-01-24_14-48-07_258Kyle showed me a small painting in a sort of Chinese landscape style that he liked, and asked for something along those lines, insisting, however, that I go where inspiration led. Bathrooms are places where we use water, a place of cleansing and refreshment, so I wanted to paint water. I also wanted to continue the lovely azure color of the tiles, which goes well with the bright yellow walls. And, the bathroom being a small, intimate space, I thought it would be nice to show a broad view of a vast, far away place.

2014-01-24_14-47-50_444What emerged was a dreamy landscape inspired by the deep fiords of the Alexander Archipelago… Southeast Alaska. Tall Sitka spruce along a drift-strewn beach, with a classic old-fashioned halibut schooner chugging along to their next set. Wraith-like shreds of cloud waft along the avalanche-scarred mountainsides… A crude imitation of the real thing, but hopefully enough to jog our memories.

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I enjoyed contributing a small piece to this excellent home, itself an ongoing work of art…2014-01-24_14-49-01_177