The Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner has pulled together prime examples of work by dozens of residents of the now-defunct Fishtown artists colony and by non-Fishtown artists who worked (or continue to work) in different areas along the Skagit River.
A long, narrow boardwalk — literally, a boardwalk, made of two or three planks of wood laid side-by-side — once hovered above the marshy banks of the Skagit River, connecting the shacks of Fishtown. The users of this pathway, the residents of Fishtown, were a loosely organized but tightly knit group of artists, poets and scholars who had chosen an isolated and rustic life.
From 1968-1980, one by one, they left Seattle, or other towns and cities on both coasts, and took over the abandoned fishing cabins where they lived without electricity or running water to focus on their artistic, spiritual or philosophical pursuits.
The self-anointed “Mayor of Fishtown,” and one of its earliest residents, was Charles Krafft, who said that he moved to the remote area in order “to be alone, by myself, and learn to meditate.” When asked if he had, he answered simply, “No.” But, he added, “What I’m doing with my painting is a form of meditation.”
His drawings, paintings and illustrated diaries exude a self-reflective, but in-the-moment, quality that characterizes the Eastern meditative and philosophical trends that were of great interest to many Westerners during the late 1960s and 1970s.
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Kathleen Moles, the Museum of Northwest Art’s curator of exhibitions, has pulled together prime examples of Krafft’s work, along with art and poetry by dozens of other Fishtown residents and by non-Fishtown artists who worked (or continue to work) in different areas along the Skagit River near La Conner. The art and writing that they produced was often infused with Eastern philosophy or techniques — the Sumi ink flows steadily in this exhibition.
Moles organized the show chronologically, but also to allow certain themes to surface: landscapes that record a moment within the transience of nature, and animal imagery, particularly the wise, transcendent birds that were so popular with Northwest artists.
In order to capture the atmosphere of this creative, austere lifestyle, Moles has included objects like a row boat, oil lamps and a milk jar, which was used for borrowing milk from the nearby farmers on whose land the “River Rats” trespassed with tacit permission. The Fishtown residents — including key figures like Ralph Aeschliman, Paul Hansen and the area’s first resident, Art Jorgensen — worked both independently and together, collaborating on poetry broadsheets or trying out different traditional or experimental techniques. Several of the artists came together as the Asparagus Moonlight Group; their 1971 show in Seattle brought attention to the Skagit River as an area of fertile creative activity.
Over the years, the Fishtown residents left or died. Some, like Krafft and Stephen Herold, the most prolific chronicler of Fishtown, moved back to Seattle. Others settled in various places around the globe or across the U.S. Elizabeth Soderberg (then known as Elizabeth Mabe), one of the only long-term female residents living among the “monks” of Fishtown, now teaches high school in North Carolina. (Soderberg recalls that, at the time, many people “thought that women ‘couldn’t stand’ living without electricity, water, etc.”)
Not wanting to create a pilgrimage site, Moles emphasizes that Fishtown is gone. Many of the fishing cabins were destroyed in the 1980s. But the writing, paintings, sculptures and photographs remain, currently gathered together in this quiet, extensively researched exhibition.
There are no large-scale, showstopping works of art that steal attention from the other objects or from the poetry that Moles has writ large on the walls. Instead, there is a meditative flow from piece to piece, building up a less-than-linear story about the kinds of people who lived in Fishtown and the beautiful, groovy, soul-searching work they produced as they lived along the boardwalk, at the edge of the river.