The art show at KOBO Gallery at Higo this month is a sweet-sad testimony to a legendary Northwest artist colony. The Asian-infused hodgepodge of...

Share story

The art show at KOBO Gallery at Higo this month is a sweet-sad testimony to a legendary Northwest artist colony. The Asian-infused hodgepodge of “You Can’t Get There from Here: Art and Life on the Lower Skagit” just fits the funky elegance of the space, with its vintage variety store fittings and ghosts of the past.

The ghosts, in this case, aren’t reminders of the wistful Higo sisters who for decades lived in the back of the shop, a fixture of the International District since the 1930s. Instead they belong to several of the artists who inhabited a string of abandoned fishing shacks on the banks of the Skagit River and have since passed on. During the late 1960s and early ’70s they were among the painters, poets and outsiders who colonized and rejuvenated Fishtown.

Painter Charlie Krafft, still in his teens, led the migration to Fishtown and became its designated “mayor.” He arrived under the spell of Morris Graves, the charismatic artist who had once transformed a burned-out house into a sort of Zen-inspired shrine for painting.

Krafft was followed by the younger Hans and Eric Nelsen (sons of architect Ibsen Nelsen, who designed Graves’ final house in California) and a host of others who came and went with the tides and the seasons, among them Robert Sund, Steve Herold, Paul Hansen, Bo Miller, Daniel Stokley and Arthur Jorgenson.

The loose-knit association made its Seattle debut in 1971 at the former Second Storey Gallery, under the name the Asparagus Moonlight Group. Northwest documentarian Mary Randlett photographed them for the exhibition poster, and Seattle collector Marshall Hatch made a purchase. They were on their way.

“You Can’t Get There” pulls together odds and ends of material from those early days to the present, with whatever was still around to lend: lots of sumi sketches and calligraphy, paintings, books, ceramic and wood sculptures, posters, old signs. Some of the work is archival and just there to look at. Other artworks, as well as a lovely new crop of broadsides and books, are for sale. The artists were all young at the time and caught up in the things that mattered most, like philosophy, poetry, painting, mating and generally living life to the fullest.

What’s most endearing about the show is the rush of creative energy it captures and the hint of nostalgia for a lost time and place. Fishtown was shut down in the late 1970s by the property owners, who wanted to reclaim it.

Like young artists everywhere, the Fishtown denizens were not particularly original. Poet Robert Sund, who lived a ways downstream, made squiggly imitation Mark Tobey paintings. Krafft was trying to mind-meld with Graves. Bo Miller carved Northwest coast Indian motifs and voluptuous nudes, among other things. (I love his wonderful yin/yang mandala drawing of Chevy trucks.) They all swooned over the stark pronouncements and spare brushwork of ancient Chinese literati poet/painters, while fortifying themselves with wine, weed, lemongrass tea, muddy coffee or whatever was available. In addition to practicing his calligraphy, Paul Hansen translated from the Chinese. Krafft became the innovator of the group, and anyone who knows him for his more recent ceramic “Disasterware” and ironic forays into funerary art and porcelain weaponry should really pay a visit to KOBO to see how it all began.

Life along the river was glorious in those days, and Fishtown was just a sliver of the art scene that flourished during the ’60s and ’70s in the Skagit Valley, with resident artists and writers Guy Anderson, Clayton James, Tom Robbins, Larry Beck, Gertrude Pacific, Paul Havas, the Heald brothers, Aurora Jellybean, Bill Slater — the list goes on. I lived there in the mid-1970s and know the region’s charm and its drawbacks. Life on the fringe was difficult and sometimes petty. Hauling water, scrounging firewood and hanging out at the tavern rehashing the details of other peoples’ personal lives were constant themes.

And, as Steve Herold points out in his new memoir “Where The River Ends: Art & Poetry of the Lower Skagit,” the isolation, poverty and hard living sometimes took a toll. I remember intense, eccentric Fishtown resident Keith Brown. Herold writes that Brown began sleeping days and “listening to the radio by night, to pick up the ‘secret messages between the words’ ” and ended up “forever in Western State Hospital.”

Since then too many of the artists who were associated with that period in the Skagit have died. Jorgenson is gone, and Beck. So are Sund, Aurora Jellybean and, most recently, Slater. As Herold puts it: “All told hundreds of people came through Fishtown, some to gawk, some to hide, and the best to join in our world if only for a moment. The influence of Fishtown and its artists on the Northwest is huge, and all the sweeter that few know where the spirit came from.”

Sheila Farr: