Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Travel: Orcas Island, art of the natural

Last Saturday I was lucky enough to take a short trip out to Orcas Island, the largest of the San Juan Islands in northeastern Washington state. My friends and I walked from the airfield into a town called Eastsound, the largest on the island with around 3,000 people. 

A lot of the island communities in Washington have an eclectic mix of residents. These areas were first inhabited by the Coast Salish--the name given to the various tribes that live(d) in the Pacific Northwestern coastal areas from Canada's Vancouver Island down to northern Oregon. In the mid-19th century settlers came from the mainland, mostly farmers and fishermen. In the last quarter of the 20th century the San Juans became a draw for artists and writers and people who own yachts and have a lot of money and time.

East Sound Bay, looking southwest
Outside the Orcas Island Historical Museum there is a large wooden sculpture of a heron with a red metal ball. I took a quick photograph, and later decided to dig up some more information about it (the museum was closed for the evening). 

The artist is an island resident named Todd Spalti.  The sculpture is an interpretation of a Tlingit story about the creation of people. (The Tlingit are a tribe that live further north, on the Alaskan and Canadian coast.)

Here's an exerpt from the story (full text here): 
Name: Tribute; Height: 14 feet 3 inches; Material: red cedar and metal

At the beginning of things there was no daylight and the world lay in blackness. Then there lived in a house at the head of Nass river a being called Raven-at-the-head-of-Nass (Nâs-cA'kî-yêl), the principal deity to whom the Tlingit formerly prayed but whom no one had seen; and in his house were all kinds of things including sun, moon, stars, and daylight. 

First of all beings Nâs-cA'kî-yêl created the Heron (LAq!) as a very tall and very wise man and after him the Raven (Yêl), who was also a very good and very wise man at that time. Raven came into being in this wise. His first mother had many children, but they all died young, and she cried over them continually. 

By and by Heron came to her and said, "What is it that you are crying about all the time?" She answered, "I am always losing my children. I can not bring them up." Then he said, "Go down on the beach when the tide is lowest, get a small, smooth stone, and put it into the fire. When it is red hot, swallow it. Do not be afraid." She said, "All right." Then she followed Heron's directions and gave birth to Raven. 

Therefore Raven's name was really ÎtcA'k!u, the name of a very hard rock, and he was hence called TA'qlîk!-îc (Hammer-father). This is why Raven was so tough and could not easily be killed. Heron and Raven both became servants to Nâs-cA'kî-yêl, but he thought more of Raven and made him head man over the world. Then Nâs-cA'kî-yêl made some people.

To the left is a photo taken from the back of the sculpture (click the photo for a link to the original article with photo) showing Raven emerging from the back of a heron with two people.

Artist: unknown; Size: 6'x8'; Material: driftwood
Later as my friends and I walked on the shore of the bay we encountered another, more impromptu sculpture made of driftwood.

I'm going to call this stream-of-consciousness engineering. Not a lot of planning went into it--so it's not crafted, exactly, like the heron. It's not a cultural expression. It's just a spontaneous delight in form, made from debris tossed off by the ocean.  

Near this structure I stopped to pick up a bone from the edge of the water. It looks to me like a vertebrae of some kind of mammal, maybe a dog. Although bits of the spiny parts are broken off, it still has a beautiful symmetry. 

Artist: unknown; Height: 2"; Material: calcium phosphate
It's an object that sparks curiosity, because it is a leftover part of some disappeared living thing, and also because the elaborate design of skeletal systems is not often reflected upon in daily life. A dead body with flesh on it would be repugnant, but bones themselves seem...clean. The patterns in a cross-section of a bone are finely webbed, like crystal, or like the tines of a snowflake seen under a microscope. This is the basic material that gives us our form--that builds the frame onto which our flesh is upholstered.

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