Its been very lovely in Port Madison this Spring. I’ve been regrouping after putting up the art show, taking stock and redirecting energy toward simpler things like chopping wood. We are talking serious wood chopping.
The building is a workshop built by Ed Monk. I’ve been privileged to Moor Old Hand at this historic site, built by one of the Northwest’s finest boat designers. I feel his presence in the stoutly built out- buildings and docks, and gladdened by the thought that, he too, hauled gear and materials up and down the steep path to the water. His can-do spirit inspires my humble efforts, and I take extra care in the stacking of split maple and cedar. This stacking is itself, an art.
At first, I was unimpressed by Monk’s designs. But as I worked on his boat-houses I came to see his ubiquitous, wooden power cruisers in a new light.
I find rusty, bent shipwright tools near Monk’s shop, and use an old, weathered workbench he made. After the long preparation for the exhibit, this physical connection with common objects that surrounded his life has inspired in me an appreciation for the simple aesthetic of usefulness.
My boat, Old Hand is not a Monk, but was built of such stuff. Her portly hull design is a scaled-down version of the hefty Norwegian lifeboats designed by Colin Archer. After 10 years of owning her I’ve greater appreciation for her ponderous lines and stout workmanship. So I am readying for another season of sailing. I look at tide tables and plot course South toward Old Hand’s first port of call: Gig Harbor.
So stay tuned for posts chronicling these adventures on the Salish Sea told in art, music and videos.
I begin this post with only the vaguest notion of what it’s about. A feeling, a mood that has to do with twilight is all there is to go on at this point. Sometimes we are simply empty of ideas. Nothing of worth seems to loom on the horizon in the way of inspiration. There is nothing to go on except some vague feeling, and an impulse to create. This fear of abandonment by the creative muse has given me much angst but, over the years, I’ve developed strategies for dealing with this problem. One way is to begin with a color, to paint a canvas with a ground of a single hue and visualize it as I drift off to sleep, asking that an image come to me in dreams. As for the question of to whom I am making this appeal I can only say that it is addressed to Great Spirit, Hypnos, the Household Gods or maybe even my own inner wisdom. The problem of from where dream imagery originates has never been satisfactorily answered. I used this method in the painting Oriens. I asked for a symbolic image for one of my Four Directions series-that of East. When I woke next morning and, disappointed with a lack of response from the dream oracle, I opened the hatch on my boat and saw, rising from the low-lying fog, a vision of a celestial city bathed in the glorious morning light. It was Seattle, a city very much situated in the waking world. What this says about the efficacy of my method I don’t know, except that it inspired me to look at the external world in a fresh way.
Here is a canvas covered with atmospheric veils of blue/violet and red/violet that suggests a seascape on an inland sea. In fact, it looks like Port Madison. I evoke the ineffable feeling of the moment between two lights-that of day and nocturnal luminance that lights the inner workings of soul. When one is illuminated the other falls into shadow.
In my research of Port Madison history, it seemed those who inhabited these shores appeared to me in the violet hour, spectral forms who emerge from the shadows to demand remembrance, nourishment from the life they’ve long left behind. These phantoms seem to advance and recede as I work the material.
This image was a rubbing/transfer from a photocopy into my sketchbook. Only after I photographed and enlarged it again was I able to discern the presence of figures who eluded me before. They emerge with the process of working the image with different media. It’s as if the artistic process is a form of conjuration. In contemplation of these sombre hues I call forth the restless shades who reside beyond the dusky veil to take their places in the visible world.
My boots are heavy with the soil of Thatcher Farm. This is the foundation from which I begin this homage to a hallowed place, and invoke the Genius Loci of the old harbor community I’ve come to call home. Among last year’s pumpkin vines I sift the refuse of common household objects. To ground this narrative I reach across time and make contact with the elders through the humble detritus of everyday life. I touch cup fragments once held in living hands around the faded embers of the ancestral hearth.
There is also the secret record. It’s a spiritual history that, some say, dates back to the Rosicrucians, who preserved the remnants of Solomon’s wisdom. But we must forego linear chronology to enter the transhistorical and poetic record of events that transpire in the soul.
Just down the road is Kane Cemetery.
Many of the headstones of Port Madison’s founders are inscribed with Masonic symbols. This secret society played a major role in much of Port Madison’s early cultural and artistic history. The Kane No. 8 Masonic Lodge Hall was situated on a dock in the town center. It was said that Edwin Booth performed there. I can’t verify this, but a world where the great actor brought his melodious interpretation of the Melancholy Dane to sleepy Port Madison is a world I prefer to live in. He did perform in Oregon territory.
I read of a production of Cinderella staged by the MacDonald sisters in the Hall. I find the choice of this particular tale for the entertainment and edification of the community significant. It was, for a time in the mid 19th Century, the myth which inspired the rough and tumble loggers and mill hands toward loftier goals than decimating forests, whoring and drinking. A wild west mill town staged a pageant honoring the Anima. “The Anima of man,” writes Jung, “has a strongly historical character. As a personification of the unconscious she goes back into prehistory…she provides the individual with those elements that he ought to know about his prehistory.”
The curtain rises on a poor maid covered in ashes. She fans the faded embers of a secret tradition based on humility and good works, preserving in the vestal flame an esoteric knowledge of salvation.
Jacob Boheme says : “The inner light is the natural ascent of the spirit within us which at last illuminates and transfigures those who tend it.” She ascends by degrees (symbolized by her changes of clothes) to her royal estate and abides among the envoys of supernal light. Swedenborg, in his Concordance, says that shoes correspond with the lowest natural things and that beautiful shoes symbolize the delight of making oneself useful. This has long been the Freemason’s credo. She teaches us that we are exalted through selfless servitude. Her lost shoe forms a link between her role as humble servant and her radiant heavenly counterpart. This ascension provides a model for the spiritual adept. Perhaps these mysterious changes of raiment are reflected in the robes of office and pageantry of Masonic Rites.
Lost in these speculations, I return to till the soil. Maybe I’ll find more spiritual artifacts or the way to elevate this arcane history by tilling the rich soil of good works.
Reflections of brilliant red kayaks fall vertically into the mud off Reah’s dock . The gray water stretches toward steep soundings off Jefferson Head and a fitful northerly brightens the harbor entrance with catspaws . An ancient tug nudges a barge off Meig’s old mill site, while the sqwak of a blue heron echoes from tall cedars veiled in ghostly fog. The fog creates vast space by removing nearby objects beyond this present time to maroon me with only my dark thoughts. A little mystery by way of atmospheric perspective.
Strange to think how the population of this quiet port dwarfed Seattle in the mid 19th Century, when Meig’s mill belched acrid smoke into the northwest gloom and the west shore shipyard built lumber schooners for the coast trade. Then, the steam side wheeler’s whistle sounded along these shores. Venerable tugs like the Politkovsky, brought passengers, mail and logs to the hearty inhabitants of a thriving boomtown built with the lumber milled for distant ports. The long history of this now peaceful anchorage holds some dirty secrets- like when Meigs suddenly fired all Chinese workers or used trickery to monopolize the mosquito fleet, the main form of transport on Bainbridge Island.
I’ve taken a break from painting to work at Thatcher Farm. My art work has long tended toward abstraction (the term is used loosely since my work is figurative) and I needed connection with our ancestral earth to ground my mercurial mind. Speaking of Mercury, it seems significant that Thatcher farm was the main switchboard for Island communications for much of the 20th Century.
So now I’m sending out a communique into an ever expanding cyber network where few have time for an old sailor’s questionable yarn. Among crockery shards I disinter rusty hinges for a gate that opens into another time. How many have turned this soil over the centuries, have pulled crabgrass, hacked blackberry vines into submission and bent hoe blades on this weathered rock? I till midden heaps of kitchen ware and toss rocks into a plastic bucket with a loud, dull thunk!.
Under golden maples that sway over the harbor entrance, a cemetery holds the remains of Port Madison’s founders. Here I came upon a stone bearing this simple elegy:
…Gallieau, 1905-2005, Lost at Sea
What an epic sea romance is encapsulated in this terse inscription! Would that my own humble literary efforts were enlivened by such economy and expressiveness. I see Gallieau as a Conradian swab on a lumber schooner bound for Frisco after the big quake, or an ancient mariner going down for the last time off Foulweather Bluff in a squall. May he rest in peace.
George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).