Sea Change is a Folks Press serial. Part 1 appears here in Issue 6. Part 2 will appear in Issue 7, July/August.
Lucky bastard. I was staying in a beachside cabin, cliff side, overlooking the sparkling ocean. And the weather was fantastic. The sun shone like a woman’s smile. Yet, I was troubled by something, something that had been niggling me for decades, whenever I visited the coast. The cabin was a small space, intimate, two closet sized bedrooms and one larger area that stands in for kitchen and dining and living room. In total, maybe all of six hundred square feet. And trimming out that limited space were an unrelenting number of beach decorations, beach paraphernalia, beach pictures. Indeed, all manner of beach symbols. Positioned everywhere.
In a manner of speaking, that was the sand in my shell. From the moment I strolled into the cabin and glanced around, I was in engaged in one constant reminder after another that… ah, well…. That I was at the beach! Surprise! The thing is, I know that I’m at the beach. After all, arriving there was no accident. Indeed, forgetting that I was at the beach would require a blunt trauma.
This is all more than forgivable. If it weren’t for the fact that every beach rental I’d ever stayed in—and I mean every one, and I’ve been visiting the Oregon coast for over three decades—was identically decorated, without respite. Take a shower. Watch the water splash off shower tile festooned with a creamy stripe of oversized starfish, conch shell, and sand dollar. Use the toilet. Find yourself staring down a wide-mouth ceramic fish, stuffed with rosy potpourri. Eat a meal. The shelves at the dining table brim with dried starfish, ocean shells and sand dollars, punctuated by a grandfather’s ode to a beach chair. Every activity comes prefixed with the word “beach.” Beach shower. Beach toilet. Beach dinner. Try to escape to the couch and find yourself surrounded by photos and illustrations of the beach. Beach chillin’. Go for a beer and check out the refrigerator magnets. All beach scenes. Save for the tsunami evacuation warning. Which is arguably a beach scene. Beach terror!
It defies explanation, this décor. There’s no mystery to it, of course: the beach décor is just there, right there on the wall. It’s just absolutely everywhere, up and down the coast. But that’s also the mystery. There’s almost no place you can go where the décor is different. Ask anyone to explain this phenomenon, and people look this way and that, mouth hanging open, awaiting the simple answer that doesn’t come. But here’s the kicker. I’m standing in this cabin, one of a long line of annual rentals, surrounded by said décor, when all the while a tilt of my head toward the windows reveals something genuinely spectacular. Yes. It’s the beach!
THE MISE EN ABYME THING
Despite the over salting of my visit (beach visit!), I was ready and willing to retire these thoughts, once again—and simply enjoy being ocean side. And I would have done so, if it weren’t for Haystack Rock.
Since my arrival, the following curiosities I’d already taken in. In the cabin’s living room was an illustration of the cabin itself, its perspective from across the street. There was a wide-angle photograph of the self-same street in winter snow (a fresh perspective). There were historic photographs with cars parked on the very beach above which we were so majestically perched. But it was during dinner preparations that I saw photographs that launched me into a certain frame of mind, from which it would be difficult to escape.
I had taken up station at the kitchen sink, where I found myself face to face with two framed pictures of Haystack Rock, the unofficial symbol of the Oregon Coast, a favorite of picture postcards, key chains, artist’s renderings, and tourist brochures. Standing there, the kitchen worker is indentured to these photos; there’s nowhere else to look but out the tiny kitchen window and onto the passing road, possibly to consider the perspective put forth in the living room photo. Preparing food, I had been eyeballing the two photos, when something occurred to me. Spinning on my heel, I swung round a half-turn to face the picture windows, which opened to the ocean vista, to the air and the horizon. To the sandy beach. And there it was. Haystack Rock. The one and only, the de facto rock—a thousand times bigger, huge and looming, bathed in gradually changing sunlight, teeming with life, birds darting, dashing, and diving in a dusty halo, limpid tide pools at its foot, wave after wave bursting against her sides. Right. Outside. The. Window.
Over dinner, I shared my observations—okay, obsession—with the two other guests. I attempted to gussy up the story. The décor is like a mise en abyme, I said, the same image reflected in another image, reflected in another, in another, in another. Growing smaller or larger, like nesting dolls. My companions were kind and interested, but only mildly so. It was obvious that I hadn’t been entirely persuasive. In my hyperbolic imagination, it felt like one of those movie moments, when the Jurassic paleontologist informs his companions that he’s discovered a nest of live dinosaur eggs, and his companions respond by questioning the sanity of discussing breakfast food. But never mind. Given the relaxed surroundings and the purpose of our trip—a birthday celebration—my story may have come across as inappropriately anxious and off topic. No argument there. Indeed, I resolved to calm myself. There were more befitting matters to consider.
My resolve was short lived. After a bit, on my way to the bathroom, I encountered Haystack Rock once again. This time in several smaller framed photos, tacked neatly onto the wall outside the bedroom. One of my companions pointed them out for my benefit. Thanks to those photographs, I took the image of Haystack Rock with me to the toilet. All the while, just outside and down the dry, grassy hill, mysteriously, the rock itself was hazy in the evenfall, high tide crashing about its sturdy base.
Okay, now I was genuinely bothered, my fuse gently tripped. Now—I was on the case.
The dishes were long done and my companions were having a lively conversation. But they were likewise keeping an eye trained on me. A perfectly reasonable thing to do, because what they are watching is a man, notebook in hand, briskly crisscrossing from wall to wall, doorway to doorway, room to room, appearing purposeful, while no sane purpose can be immediately gleaned. Curiosity gets the best of them, and they have to ask.
What are you doing?
Counting tchotchkes. Beach tchotchkes. There’s a ton of it. Once you start looking, it’s everywhere.
They glanced around the cabin and watch my undaunted progress. I’d not stopped to chat, which seems to lend authority to my otherwise eccentric activity. Possibly because it now looked more like a scavenger hunt than an abstract lecture from the pulpit of the weird, I’d piqued the better part of their interest. Though we took a break to walk the dusky beach, by mid-evening, I’d completed my informal survey.
“Forty-one beach symbols,” I announced. In six hundred square feet.
From that moment on, for the remainder of the trip, my companions took delight in this new trophy game. They found non-stop examples, and with each discovery, called them out loud. Early on, T. came to us with a small sea terrarium. “Look at this,” she exclaimed, presenting it to us, individually, affording a close-up look at a strange arrangement of diminutive beach items. (After which, she hid the thing in the hallway tack room.) Adding her own contribution, A. gleefully directed our attention all about the cabin. Strewn here and there were pillows (six by my count), displaying hand-painted shells and sea grass, along with matching bedspreads, themed in red and cream seaweed.
Tongue flashing forward ... "Scraps! Scraps! Scraps!"
We were in the cabin dining area, when a gull touched down on the outside porch railing. Which was kind of exciting, it was such a bold move. So close at hand, the creature stared at us, and turned one black eye toward the cabin interior for a better look-see. Having moved to the open porch door for a clearer view, I stared back. The bird didn’t budge but appeared to be waiting for something. The stance of the gull, perched stoically on the railing, immediately reminded me of all the statues of gulls that you see, ceramic birds standing on logs and railings, decorating the lawns and businesses and towns up and down the coast. Like so many other beach symbols, it was everywhere. The gull statuary exists to remind us of the gulls, however, not the other way around. No, no. But here was the actual gull calling to mind a statue, its imitation.
All of a sudden, the bird splayed open its beak, tongue flashing forward, and it clamorously cried out. Scraps! Scraps! Scraps!
BEACH COMBING OF A DIFFERENT SORT
It was high time for an adventure. Beach culture was clearly something lost on me. And all this thinking about beach decor and what might lie behind it cried out for a grab-your-beach-towel-and-sun-hat kind of field research. Get out of the house; get your hands dirty, as it were. (Ahem.) But this particular trip would be over too quickly for meaningful note taking. Research would have to take place later. So, I returned home, and after a bit of planning, boomeranged back to the beach a month later.
By now, I was after something a little bigger. The beach is so much more than shells, starfish, and oversized rock. Scattered along the coastline were towns of people, the very people who produced all that beach décor. No doubt, they would be steeped in very different kind of symbols. Symbols of their towns, their histories; life on the coastline. They were no starfish, these humans. What beach symbols representing themselves would we find? My intrepid research assistant, Anna, and I had chosen three different coastal towns that might hold clues. The towns were of differing character and industry—and overall vibe. Yet, they were all coastal towns, emblematic of life at the water’s edge.
Rather than scour the beach for shells, we would scour our towns for symbols, any kind of beach symbol, and see what they pointed to. In short, we were going beach combing. Beach combing of a different sort. Perfect.
We roll into Astoria. Stop number one. Gigantic red and white crane ships cruise the impressive Columbia River, white-capped and boldly blue and racing madly, as wide as any lake requiring ferry passage. Here, the grand ocean meets the great river. Here, was an estuary of water and people. Here, was to be found a beach town with absolutely no swimming. For this is Astoria, Oregon, where the water currents, roiling like the mind of god, keep compact with death. And you best pay heed.
This is a town with history. It’s a variety of classic Pacific Northwest chronicle, one that taps many of the historic meat and potatoes of the region: the Lewis and Clark expedition, fur trading lore, refurbished log forts, clapboard houses baring their widow’s peak. A zenith of canning, timber and railroad shaped this town, as did their eventual eventide. The disappearance of which now shapes the town’s nadir. It is difficult to forget that Astoria has history. For the town itself romances its history, quite in spite of the jilting by multiple industries, both as a means of town identity, as well as out of necessity. After all, everyone needs something to sell. There’s a museum, plaques on buildings, and a hillside full of preservation homes. Further adding to the historic vibe, Astoria also has the feel of a place where various moments in time have been frozen, and continue to be on display. Bits of ancient and moss ridden pier stumps protrude from the river. They rub shoulders with new cedar shake offices and restaurants and older fishing and canning warehouses, all of which provides the foreground to the angular web of steel radio tower and symmetrical bridge that own the horizon line.
BOWPICKER, VICE COUNCILS, AND STRUMPETS
On a tight schedule, we skip the log cabin lore and the nautical museum. Instead, we opt for unearthing the bones of Astoria in more prosaic fair, marking our itinerary with fish and chips from a beached wooden boat and a ride up the residential hills, where so many houses are older, many old enough for historic registry. First, however, we score coffee, downtown. It’s downtown where we come across a doorway painted entirely, top to bottom, as a happy fish about to be grilled. We are also treated to a sidewalk trashcan rendered in the exact likeness of canned salmon, reading: “Gill Netters Best, Columbia River, Spring Catch, Royal Chinook Salmon, Packed by Salmon fishermen Cooperative Packing Company, Astoria Oregon.” Lastly, there is a entertaining window display crowded with Beanie Baby lobsters, plastic fish, actual sea shells, and an oven mitt printed with a smiling red crab who had this to say. “You crack me up.”
By this time we are full-on hungry, and seek out the Bowpicker. Bowpicking was a longstanding gillnet fishing method, a way to put bread on the table in the nineteenth century, a fishing tradition once common to the river. We found the Bowpicker beached on a small side street, a solitary small craft, red and white, nearby the Custard King and directly across from the mildew stained Moose Lodge. Whereas once those aboard a bowpicker would have picked fish from the net, now the two women of the Bowpicker pick fish from a sealed brown paper bag, dropping the breaded fish straight from the bag to the smoking deep fat.
“11ish to 6ish ... weather permitting.”
Even on this cool and cloudy day, there is a line, and we get in it. When it begins to rain on those of us in line, one of the cooks calls out through the glass-absent window of the smoking wheelhouse, offering, in the most informal of shout-outs, umbrellas to folks in the queue. “No, thanks. We’re fine.” Everyone sticks it out and the rain shortly subsides. When we arrive at the ordering window, I notice that to our right is a chalk sign informing patrons that the hours, although “11ish to 6ish,” are “weather permitting.” The words, scrawled in chalk, have been smeared by rainwater. It seems that a certain flexibility and gusto, less common to inland city dwelling, is a required of the locals—and applies equally to out-of-town guests.
Anna and I collect lunch and sit underneath a leafless tree, on a damp bench, and eat our fish. While it might be considered apocryphal to the chamber of commerce, fish n chips from a beached bowpicker, too, is local history unfolding. It didn’t exactly come with a plaque, but the story is easy enough to read, right there on the gravel sidewalk. And it tastes pretty good.
BARREL CHESTED MANSION
Astoria gives the strong impression of a place dusty and threadbare, with a patina of longsuffering, shy romance. An aging coquette with a struggling roadside motel. And the most romantic place in town might be what lies up the hill, the world outside the obviousness of downtown, with its port, museums, and industry. The hill of residential homes, a solid slope of clapboard houses, peppered with aging churches, and made dizzy by a winning river vista, watches over the port and town like some droopy-eyed and retiring lightkeeper, an old salt still around to see it change all over again. Halfway up, we stumble upon a boarded up mansion, next to a row of colorful homes of matching design and historic registry, a plaque on every facade. It’s too good to resist, and we stop.
After parking, we walk excitedly toward the mansion. We pass a porch, the last house before the mansion’s unkempt grounds. Just then, an elderly woman wearing an oversized yellow terrycloth robe ambles out onto the porch, accompanied by a lame dog, favoring one leg, his eyesight questionable, his blue eyes clouded. Splaying his legs slightly outward, steadying himself on all fours before beginning, the dog barks.
“Sorry about that,” calls the woman, entirely unself-conscious about the time of day—it’s four in the afternoon and she’s not yet out of her robe. We slow down but she addresses us only minimally. Her tone is husky and matter-of-fact. “He’s just saying Hi,” she says of the dog. It certainly is friendly. I mean, the whole scene. I suspect that this is also just her way of saying Hi. The robe, the porch, the dog.
We smile, but the woman is not looking for a response. It’s her porch and she simply getting some air. We continue on, climbing the stairs to the mansion. The building is set back from the street, farther than any of the other homes. The lot, grass and all, overtakes the block’s end cap, stretching from one intersection to the next, with the house sat squarely in the center, seriously owning the lot. Even with the doors and windows boarded, and the black smeared clapboard, its paint in places long since worn off and punished by ages of weather, the mansion still presents itself, barrel chested, with lionhearted assurance.
Walking back to the car, we meet Ron. His wife has disappeared inside with the dog, without a trace. In the doorway now stands the tabby cat named Stormy. Ron is out strolling the sidewalk. This row of houses, he informs us, his house included, were designed, built, and belonged to a French Vice Council, of local yore. The Vice Council was also responsible for some of Astoria’s shanghai bars and houses of ill-repute, hijackings and strumpets. Ron leavens this tattle, leaning towards us and saying, “I don’t know what a Vice Council was doing that for!”
The mansion belonged to a former mayor, Ron continues, shaking his head, slowly. The mayor’s son inherited the place but ended up with jail time. Since his release, the son has not been seen nor heard from. The city is in a quandary as to how to get its hand on this beauty before it’s all gone. Recently, they dispatched carpenters to board up the windows and doors. I glance back at the mansion for a second consideration. It seems a manful, a thing belligerent about being painted into the new order. Unlike many of the historic homes on the hill, which have welcome helpings of fresh paint.
But things are kinda going.
Regarding his own house, Ron quips. “Both of us aren’t in great condition.”
Then, looking as if maybe he’s said too much—illicit French Vice Councils, jailbird neighbors, et al—Ron excuses himself from the conversation and starts up the stairs.
“It’s not that it’s a happening town, “ he says, by way of explanation, or some sort of apology. “But things are kinda going.”
RISING AND FALLING
On the way out of town, down the 101, we pass the four-mile long, theatrical spectacle that is the Astoria-Megler Bridge. The bridge spans the river from one side to the other, Washington to Oregon, skimming the water’s surface for three-quarters of the distance, along which gulls race up and down on the air currents, sailing parallel to the traffic lanes, until, at the last quarter distance, the bridge swiftly rises up to a dizzying height, its arched spine affording unfettered passage by the red and white ships sailing underneath its lift. This enormous metal truss and concrete structure speaks volumes about Astoria.
As a pure sight, the bridge is an industrial poem of human achievement, an exemplary throughput for automobiles, encouraging drivers to shoot past and get on down the road. It is likewise a figurative slap in the face to the town on its south-side touchdown. Racing across the bridge, one gets the idea that Astoria, this once commercial and oceanic port-of-call, would best serve as something to wave at from the rise. And that would entirely miss the point.
So, too, the bridge is a symbol. But it didn’t crack me up.
Join us in Part 2, featured in Issue #7: July/August, as we head down the coastline to explore two other, very different towns and their symbols.
On April Fool’s Day, 1996, Tim and Patty Merrill bought a Masonic Lodge in SE Portland as their new home. A large commanding building with its own parking lot, it was two stories of stone, a grand front door, and high-casement windows that reached to the ceiling. If that weren’t extraordinary enough as a domestic set-up—with its fully operational stage, yellow and black Masonic gowns left behind in a metal armoire, and an industrial kitchen to feed the Masonic Knights of past—they also inherited a subterranean HO model railroad. Housed in the basement, this tiny, self-contained kingdom came with its own set of knights, so to speak; a group of model railroaders who call themselves the Mount Hood Model Engineers. For Patty, this was a stroke of extreme good luck, “we just thought—who better to have half the basement!” Since that fateful day, these two kingdoms have co-existed, evolved, and shared electricity, quite happily, in a kind of cross-scale harmony.
When you descend the stairway and in through the side entrance into the Mount Hood Model Engineers club, there are signs of its former basement existence: pipes, cramped spaces, and the dankness that usually accompanies such underground spaces. Since the engineers started meeting there in 1976, they’ve transformed 1,200 square feet of a basement that-was into a blue-ceilinged, lush, dioramic layout of Northwest towns connected by trains, which run from Spokane to Estacada to Shaniko to Portland. Seven scale miles of mainline track and a network of model trains run by digital remote are busy carrying lumber, grain, and passengers through forested landscapes, mountain tunnels, and commercial main streets. On operating nights, when members converge downstairs to run the railroad, there’s a distinctive quiet, punctuated by an electronic whir of the trains in motion, except for the occasional “where’s your train? where are you?” spoken from one operator to the other. As I look around, wedged between a large mountain range, 8 feet or so off the floor, a tiny village of tiny people tending tiny gardens by the train tracks, I think, excellent question: where am I?
IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME
As the trains rumble past, there’s a trail of small-scale activity carried out by tiny plastic figurines in the sidelines: a man fishing under the bridge, kids playing in a sandlot, crews working on the track, a biker bar, an anomalous Oregon tiger stalking sheep. You are waist-level in scenes, but it’s unclear after a while what scale you’ve assumed, and you lose your human bearings.
“You know, you can get lost. Yeah, I mean, there’s time loss. Like an alien abduction,” says Dan Parr, a veteran of hours disappeared down these stairs. As a master scene-maker, Dan is in part responsible for the success of being lost in landscape. His united interests in trains and geology, images filed away from childhood road trips get reborn into 3-D as complex settings along the Mt Hood Model railroad. He shows me to the back corner of a recently remodeled Riveston, a former high desert canyon-scape, which he evolved with the help of many rock molds over the course of 7 months into a rich, emerald forest perched on cliffs of basalt rock. How does it feel to collapse geologic time without the tedium of floods and continental drift? Dan seems pretty happy about it. Next, he’s rehauling the commanding mountain. As he tells me so, his expression is quite like a picture he had earlier described—at age two or three, beaming gleefully from his father’s lap, surrounded by a loop of train track.
There’s a crowd of plastic people waiting at the train station, frozen in a happy wave of expectation as the Pioneer passenger train stops to retrieve them. The current president of the Mt Hood Model Engineers, Dave Simmons, is all too familiar with en-peopling a landscape. Rather than spring for the high-quality, but overpriced people from a certain German manufacturer, he created nearly two-80-foot-passenger cars worth of folks.
“You get one of those optical visors and you squint,” he halfway laments, speaking of his own creation.
“I had these little tweezers…and I sat down there with a little tiny artist brush and I painted their shirts and I painted their pants and I painted their hair.”
“Didn’t you go postal there for awhile?” Dan asks.
“Something like that,” Dave replies.
Yet, when one of the train cars runs by, he proudly points out one of his “little guys.” The plastic mini-engineer passing by has a glossy red shirt and nice head of brown hair, all in the lines, evidence of time and micro-craft. And he appears just as excited as his creator to be barreling down the track.
Didn’t you go postal there for awhile?
The trains and towns in the Mt Hood Model Railroad occupy that distinct, sweet spot when diesel was in its heyday, somewhere between the late 1950s and early 1960s. The towns bear some resemblance to the actual Pacific Northwest places, cereal boxes painted in step with vintage Shaniko main streets. But, when asked how faithful the town of Estacada is to its original, Dan replies, “I like to call it Estacada-ish.” Call him Ish-mael. The Ish-ness perhaps is a factor of Lost-ness, a means of transport into the story of the old railroad, of the old West. It appears to be a common theme among model railroaders. In a Colorado train museum, there is a model train layout of Oregon and its wild, timbered expanse. Another Mt Hood Model Engineer, John Sparrow, reports that Swedish model railroaders are ditching native fjords in favor of North American prototypes. The Swedes especially love the Pacific Northwest timber towns and the romance of its native forests. Pacific Northwest-ish.
If you crash the business meeting of the Mt Hood Model Engineers on the first Tuesday of a new month, they are the most welcoming and unassuming of hosts. As long as you are game for trains, you’re in. My photographer asked whether it was okay to take pictures, and Dan assured us that “he doesn’t show up in photographs.” And former president Don Mills joked, “it depends on if you like steam or diesel.” Our allegiance was yet undecided, but they let us take pictures anyway.
Since the Mt Hood Model Railroad is mainly diesel, “steamers”(or “steam trains”) are confined to special days and open houses. After the meeting, one of the members shows me a lovely steam train that’s been hidden in the back room like a secret thing. It’s black with a puff of acrylic steam and artfully detailed coal. Don later relays that “even in the model railroad world steam locomotives take a lot more maintenance.” “Don’t hate them because they’re beautiful!” Dan shouts from across the room. Diesel may reign in this kingdom—but perhaps the original, large-scale steamer-sentiment, the beauty, is what drew many modelers there in the first place. “Steam came into its own during the war between the states,” Don says, holding court near the mountain as he stages trains. He recounts that steamers transported civil war armies and equipment—but it was another war, WWII, where diesel supplanted its more high-maintenance predecessor.
Tom Fry, a Mt Hood Model engineer since 1996, turns to me to settle the score once and for all. “The difference between steam and diesel is: diesels are boring! Steam is somethin’ that’s alive. It was romantic,” he explains. “You’ve been around ‘em. They hiss, they puff, a lot of heat coming off of them. Lots of smoke. People love to see that smoke. You know, diesel doesn’t do any of that stuff. They just sit there and rumble.” Long after steamers had been replaced by unromantic “rumblers” in the West, Don reminisces about a time when visiting relatives in Minnesota and beholding the Great Northern 08 steam engine going up and down the iron range. A collective sigh of awe—(which steam train was it? was it the great Mikado?)—goes around the room. This might be a model railroad, but large-scale and small-scale go hand in hand.
It’s also the Great Escape. Often egged on to the model railroad world by understanding wives, some of whom painted the striking skies and mountain ranges in the back, the model railroaders have also escaped the dreariness of large-scale jobs.
“People asked me—I flew for the Air Force for 20 years—you are a flier, what are you doing with a model railroad? I just gotta get away from the airplanes!” Don says.
Tom agrees. “Depends on what you love,” he smiles. “If I worked for the railroad, this wouldn’t have been any fun.”
Fun indeed. At one point, Tom gives me the remote and lets me engineer one of the trains. I take it with a mixture of honor and a twinge of terror. Terror that I’ll be the first at the Mt Hood Model club to orchestrate a “cornfield meet”—which is not some kind of lovely square dance—but a head-on train collision. Under Tom’s gentle guidance, I steer the train by a lake and through a large tunnel. As Tom and I wait for train to emerge from the other side of the tunnel, there’s a bit of mystery, anticipation, like the train is running of its own volition and might decide not to show up. We might have nothing to do with it, at all. And so we wait. It finally comes through the mountain, headlight lit up. Pictures of me at this moment register something like joy or maybe wonder. I’ve clearly been abducted by aliens in the land of Ish.
MOVING RIGHT ALONG
All this while, Roy Henry has been the yard operator in the corner, quietly orchestrating the complex pattern of traffic and industry. “I am the guy that nobody likes,” he says to the protest of his neighbors, recalling the heated discussions of the Tuesday night business meeting. That night, Roy had introduced the topic of visual aesthetics, how to create emotion between operator and viewers in a scenic layout, intimately drawing everyone into the scene with soft, artful lighting rather than the artificial glare of fluorescent bulbs. The conversation got serious and the members are serious about their hobby. Who are we here for anyway, some asked? The viewers? “We are here for our own edification!” one member asserted. No show lights. Others counter that they are also there for the public and the fun of open houses. But Roy assures me, he’s not here to argue. He’s got work to do. He’s not a builder, but figures out how to run things efficiently, such as co-authoring a system of cards that gives each train car destination and purpose. His father is a 39-year veteran with Union Pacific, but Roy likes to operate without all the “BS,” as he terms it, of being a real railroader. “I couldn’t handle hating my job. I like trains too much to hate my job.” With that, he’s on to the next task, the next train, moving right along.
In the end, heated alliances at the meeting are cast aside. They are planning a banquet at the Ristorante Di Pompei in Troutdale, Oregon. It’s decided that there will be fundage and flowers for the wives, but the raffle is scrapped. Someone asks in a worrisome tone, “what are we going to do if we don’t have a raffle?” “We’ll watch the trains not go round,” Dan somewhat mournfully replies. And perhaps somewhere in Sweden or Colorado, surrounded by a diorama of Pacific Northwest forest, another set of model railroaders are lamenting the prospect of a train-less evening, too.
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Painting portraits of people you know is a funny thing. It starts with a subject, some person I want to be associated with that has the right dose of vanity to oblige me in my quest to immortalize them. Photos are taken, and then for weeks afterward I find myself rendering their face in watercolor and acrylic, in the hope that the painted person will bear some reflection on the real deal. Sometimes you end up with permanent evidence of how you once felt about that person and how they once looked, and it’s priceless to you. At other times the result is less than desirable—that strange guy you briefly dated now takes up half your living room wall with his ghost of a tarnished memory.
The paintings are documentation of people I’ve known and the feelings I bore towards them. In this way, they are diaries, constantly viewable and on-display.
These are my go-tos, and they have
served me well
At times, it’s embarrassingly personal to paint people you know. And more surprising still to realize viewers have their own take on the painting, projecting their own assumptions and meanings onto the subject. People are often curious as to the inside scoop, asking questions I don’t want to answer and sometimes don’t even know how to begin to tackle. I sometimes suspect the behind the scenes story—the who and the what—may be better left a mystery. The truth is, it comes down to my classic types, a small variety of categories within which all my work can be sorted. These are my predictable lines of work, paintings depicting what I’ve found helpful to refer to as my “reoccurring themes.” They are as follows. The Cayman Islands paintings. The boyfriend paintings. The group scenes. These are my go-tos, and they have served me well.
While I live a charmed existence in many ways, I consider my greatest fortune to be my parent’s home in the Cayman Islands, a magical playground for me and my artist friends to exploit on a yearly basis. Holidays in the Caymans, a time for my sister and I to head down the street to our cousins compound of a house, with their guests floating in and out and a revolving door of characters looking for something to do.
There’re the usual suspects—the relatives and friends who pass the less desirable months of the mainland year in the comfort of the tropics. And there are the guests—fresh meat. Someone brought a friend this year and with them a new potential face to paint. Or, in the case of my photographer friend, a new victim to submerge in the ocean for underwater photo shoots that leave your eyes stinging and lungs burning. It’s the same every year—rally the models, fix the drinks. Time now to raid the glamorous grandmother’s closet and tromp off into the sunset, searching for that scenic resting place to drink that cocktail and sweat in the name of art in a floor-length kaftan and hat.
Outside of the bountiful photo-shoots which provide me with reference material for the year ahead, the Caymans are a place for me to really take my time with fun paint projects. No pressing commissions or schoolwork, no distracting parties or half finished portraits staring at me, just the freedom to have fun and start something new. It’s a time when I can honestly ask myself what else I should be doing besides painting a cross-dressing kangaroo, a sexy father just trying to do his best in a judgmental world, and know the answer is nothing. This joint and this coy-faced kangaroo are all I need right now. The Cayman pictures are great fun to take, the paintings better. The fun art projects and photograph fodder for my future paintings effectively couple to provide me with a cleansing sort of “reset” in the middle of winter, a minty brain bath that warms my memories as I whittle away on the work. Safely back to Portland now, huddled in from the cold and hunched over a piece of wood, remembering sun and friends.
Not all the paintings provide me with such good vibes. I don’t know if other artists feel this way, but every time I start a painting I think, “this is the best fucking thing I’ve ever done.” The feeling rarely lasts, but the painting does, and in that way I sometimes document regrets.
Which is to say, that every painting carries meaning for me, it’s like a conversation I’m having with the subject while I paint them, thinking about them for hours while I work. The temptation to paint the people I want to be thinking about is strong: past mistakes can not dissuade me from the pull of getting the new friend or lover’s face right. Naturally, this leads to some sticky situations. It’s easy to fall into painting people you no longer particularly like, or worse—the “breakup painting.” You start the painting with the best of intentions and the greatest of affection, then life happens and you’re prolonging the recovery process by continuing to stare at the person you’re supposed to be trying to forget. Inevitably, you end up kicking yourself for creating this burden of memory. Nothing to do but hope to god some lawyer or doctor will like the colors and buy it. That—or deface the thing and leave it to the sidewalk for the wolves.
That’s why I’m trying something new with my subjects, resisting the temptation to paint every fling or pretty face. No, I’m into scenes, man.
Painting groups of people, cloaking my admiration and affections for my models under the mask of chaos and plenty of company, that’s my new thing. Just groups, gatherings, and crowds. No individuals. (Or just a few.) These paintings bear no weight on my soul, there’s no embarrassment to be had when pressed by well-meaning bystanders to explain just we are looking at. What’s to explain? These are friends, and they are interacting in fantastic ways.
I don’t hurt for models anymore, either. At times it feels like there are too many people in my life. It’s contrary to my nature and sensibilities, but having lots of friends is something Portland has brought out in me. It’s the ultimate hanging-out city, where something is happening every night of the week and you just don’t know when you’ll find the time. And that’s how my phone conversations go these days. “Ohhh, I don’t know... I think I’m going to stay in. I really need to finish this painting of you guys.”
The hesitation is a lie, though. I’d always rather be painting them.
Affirmative, folks. Once you’ve seen a box library on a leafy lawn or a votive with poem thrusting from the umbrage or a flowering tree tagged with wishes flickering in the breeze, the thought springs forth that you might be off the case. That you’ve been limiting yourself. Like a cliché at linguistics conference, who knew? There are a zillion ways to do the yard.
In a manner of speaking, lawn art isn’t just about that plastic gnome. Not in the slightest. Nor is interactivity just for the web addicted. There’s always the front lawn. In the words of one neighbor, his arty-fartsy fence is there to “keep the neighborhood weird.”
You said it.
A press conference worth attending! Here's the real story, folks…
Opposite Day stars Lester, an animated columnist. He might look primitive, but Lester keeps on eye on the human animal. Lester reports on the funny business, the niceties, the hypocrisy. Delivering the "dilemma."