The whales are migrating! Come see the whales! Celebrate the whales! Save the whales!
Save the Whales, the earliest environmental battle for wildlife conservation that I can remember, resonated in the mid-sixties, giving rise to Green Peace and other campaigns for wildlife protection. Many years later, and with the same enthusiasm, our Pacific locality hosted a Whale Festival coinciding with the annual spring migration of gray whales. Optimum viewing opportunities abounded for this species that had been successfully protected, and a whale themed art show was presented close to the shoreline.
The excitement was infectious, no one could be immune from it. “Where’s the whale art show? Are we at the right place?” a young and progressive looking couple asked me as I came and went from the venue. “We just flew in from Hawaii, we came to see Don’s latest work,” the man zealously exclaimed, the pair beaming in the late morning sunshine.
Yes, you are at the right place, I assured them, nodding towards the old boathouse as I thought about Don’s whale paintings in Hawaii galleries. What an impact the paintings must have, generating such a following that people will fly 5 hours across an ocean to see your new work!
Seemingly an unlikely place for an art show, the old coastguard boathouse was tucked away at the end of the sand, cobbled to the rock ledges and giant boulders that jutted into the bay. For many decades it had served as a launching pad to rescue mariners in distress, with an easy visual of the jetties opening into the vast ocean. A half mile across the water from the strategically placed building stretched a miles long sand spit that abruptly ended where the bay finally surged into the Pacific Ocean.
Once you found yourself there, it was clearly a pristine venue for a display of marine art, with polished wood floors and walls of windows that merged the spacious main hall with the restless bay and its barrage of sea birds. Whale bones greet visitors in the lobby, and though the building was remodeled into a lecture hall adjoining a marine biology campus, the life boat launching skids still recede into the water.
As I brought in works at an early hour, a fellow emerged from a pickup with Colorado plates and began a frantic conversation. “Where are the whales, how can I see them. Where is the whale art?” Again, I directed this visitor to the boathouse, but he seemed more interested in the whales that I carried. “I don’t think I have time to see the whales, and I really can’t wait for the show to open, but I would sure like to take one home with me.”
Time seemed in short supply for this gentleman from the mountain state as he continued to eye the carved orcas in my arms. They were my early experiments with black staining on light wood to highlight the markings of the striking animals, a technique which evolved into renditions that became widely popular.
Although outside sales at events are questionable, I made sure the festival was commissioned for the early morning sale, and the Coloradan was very grateful to take home whale replicas from the edge of their world. Once again I was reminded of the impact the omnipresent yet elusive ocean dwellers have on humans. Part of the mystical power of the sea is that we know busy cities of life flourish just below this sheet of blue-gray nothingness, and it is mostly whales that pop up to remind us of those cities.
Only three artists were selected for the art show segment of the whale fest; Don McMichael, whale painter, Jo Barton, artist of local landscapes, and myself, carver of whales, dolphins and seals. I announced myself as the “new kid on the block” as I set up with these seasoned and much proclaimed artists, although I was on a much different block since they painted and I worked in the round.
Don paints whales, whales of all species; breaching whales, whales under the sea, whales with dolphins, whales with sailing ships, arctic whales in ice floes, tropical whales with palms, whales with sea lions and sea birds. Underwater perspectives fill most of his canvases, creations of translucent blues and greens surrounding the sea mammal subjects.
An ex coast guard officer, Don’s studio is an endless delight of sea faring memorabilia, from narwhal tusks to ship wheels and lanterns, to an extensive collection of glass floats of all sizes, most coming from his own forays on local beaches. Visits and discussions with this marine artist were great inspirations and learning experiences pertinent to my own career.
In contrast to the undersea world of whales, Jo Barton focused on the shorelines, scenes of sand and water. I first knew Jo Barton as quiet and unassuming in local mall shows, content to put her work out there and eager to share it with all comers. I was immediately enthralled by her images, and unabashedly favored her work for the simple reason that she painted and captured the mood of my favorite local surroundings; rugged cliffs holding back the turbulent ocean, soft waves meeting driftwood logs, and the sprinkle of wildflowers over brushy shorelines.
Her formula was simple; she was passionate about all the natural beauty surrounding her, enough so that she was driven to recreate local nature scenes with soft pastels. Her painting encompasses a quiet realism, such that one could almost hear and feel the rise and fall of the gentle surf washing over the wrinkled sand. From a quote in her own bio, she enthused, “I hope to someday soon live in a small motor home that’s all windows. No housework or gardening, just painting and living—what a way to go!”
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Fishing in Alaska, and my son Josh and I are thrown in with a guide of Asian descent and a seafood connoisseur from Kentucky. The Kentuckian takes home a hundred and fifty pound halibut for his sea food club, while Josh and I settle for a few salmon and the excitement of humpback whales cruising the channels.
Wet and tired from the long day on the sea, the kindly, expert guide invites us to recoup at his home a short distance off dockside. As his equally hospitable wife serves up hot coffee and snacks, I noticed a familiar looking painting hanging from their wall and commented, “that looks just like a scene from our area, and could even be by an artist that I am familiar with.”
“That’s because it is,” she beamed, knowing we were from Coos Bay. “It’s by my aunt, Jo Barton, who’s from your home town.” So began an enthusiastic conversation with a “small world” flair, applauding Jo for capturing the look and feel of misty northwest coastal scenes.
Another surprise came with my youngest daughter Maria’s chosen one, who hailed from the distant city of Portland. After their wedding a painting appeared on one of their walls from Adam’s art collection, and yes, it was a woodland scene by Jo Barton.
Some years later, after the fervor of the Whale Festival, after chasing halibut in Alaska, and after many carved whales, a news listing of a Jo Barton retrospective at a local gallery caught my attention. I eagerly sought out her exhibit, and immersed myself in her pastel renditions of familiar nature scenes and backwater haunts.
From room to room I wandered, until I reached the last small alcove with its last lonely painting. A thunderbolt shook me as the painting leaped out until it seemed to fill the entire wall. There were no calm beaches with lapping waves, the light and whimsical flowers were absent, all tranquility was stripped away; only a giant crag of black set in an equally dark stormy night.
The mental rays of sunshine that brightened all her paintings were supplanted by a terrifying tempest that challenged the last stand of a solitary black rock rising out of the sea. Equally black, the seas raged and tore at the lonely sea stack, a symbolic outpost withstanding the storm
It was Jo Barton’s final painting, the first and last dark cloud coming from the brush of this serene lady, painted as she wrestled with the unyielding grips of an illness that prematurely took away her life of pastel colors.
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Don McMichael is a signature member of the American Society of Marine Artists, and exhibits regularly at the Maritime Gallery of Mystic Seaport, Mystic, CT
The late Jo Barton does not have any online presence; the Coos Art Museum has her work in their permanent collection.
Where on Earth?! Charleston, Oregon