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Island Life

There is a box on the floor in our house that arrived recently with the shipment of objects, devices, artwork, clocks and toys from my parents’ house. Despite its daunting nature, I am slowly going through all of it, although compared to what got left behind, this task at hand seems rather small, but not insignificant. This particular box has become both of our cats’ new prized lounge area, as it also has a folded small area rug on top and it sits within radiant (but not combusting) range of the woodstove. With the holidays approaching, I have been tasked with making all of this new old stuff go somewhere else, which is hard since we lack both a basement and a garage- the go-to storage units for those of us unwilling to commit to a rented one. The attic has been ruled out as a safe zone for valuables with rampant rodentia still an issue there. And all the usual places- my darkroom, the metal shelving in the mud room and half the floor space in my studio are already all jammed to capacity.

It is this spatial stalemate that allows me time to pause in order to contemplate my next move. It is, of course, also an excuse for procrastination and, since neither cat is currently on this new favorite spot, I can now inspect the contents of this box marked “Dad’s Diaries and papers” in order to better judge where this might go once the space for it has been located. As it turns out, these were my Dad’s Dad’s diaries, and some of it dates back to 1909. In flipping through the browned and crispy pages of ancient newspaper clippings, ticket stubs and a sampling of speeches, I get a picture of a grandfather I only very partly knew, and begin to see which information bits I might send on to my cousins’ kids who are working on assembling a family history for all to share on the more practical and useful side of the internets.

In many ways I found myself looking at the pages of these scrapbooks in the same way I have recently looked at the storyboards of Marshall Sohl, which we have assembled and are currently on display at the Vashon- Maury Island Heritage Museum, from now until March 20th. I see each page as a wealth of somewhat overwhelming information about a certain past that is , in my grandfather’s scrapbooks, organized in patterns and blocks established by the edges of newspaper column clippings, photos and significant snippets from a life gone by. While the personal insights provided through my grandfather’s scrapbook window are exciting, it should be said that Marshall’s wall plaques and paddles made from scrap plywood and wooden reject cores of old K2 skis are far more visually appealing than any scrapbook page I thumbed through. In remembering my first,  full-on experience of Sohl storyboards at the retrospective of Marshall’s work that was on display at the Blue Heron gallery back in 2002, in my mind I see a show of folk art pieces that were simply fascinating to look at just for their texture and color and form.

It wasn’t until Marshall’s studio re-creation was completed for this exhibit, the mobile of his paddles was all strung and hung and all the wall plaques and photos of his life had  been put in their places, that I stopped and stood and read through an entire storyboard and came to realize the true meaning of his work and his quote that “you cross over the frame into knowledge.” From Vashon’s first women homesteaders to Indian wars to individual stories about Island people, roads or places, once you break the plane of the frame with a patient curiosity, you can’t help but get sucked in to the history of this place.

A seasonal thought also came to mind in recalling Marshall’s red cap and white beard and his ever present duffle bag stuffed with surprises. I couldn’t help but flash back to my own youth in Leave-it-to-Beaver time when things were more simple and magical than they seemingly will ever be again. It was at this particular time of year that, along with all the other decorations and trappings, my mother would pull out an advent calendar with all the paper doors that concealed a visual surprise to be revealed each day of the season. In the same way on many of Marshall’s wall plaques, the small squares of words that describe people, places and things on Vashon through the centuries are also very much like doors in that, once you have read them, you can’t help but cross over to see or imagine a glacier’s retreat or the bow wake of a dugout canoe as it parts the waters of the whulge or hear the tread of a ghost ship captain on some squeaky floorboard in Ellisport. As one passes from plaque to plaque, one continues to experience any number of images or visions hidden behind simple doors of words.

While many of the word boxes are verbal capsules of Island history, perhaps calling them simple is not the best of descriptive choices as there was nothing simple about Marshall’s process of recording and displaying Island history. From the hours he spent doing research on each aspect of Island lore that he decided to delve into, to the time constructing and embellishing each frame with carving tools and wood burning pens, to the elaborate calligraphy and detailed painting that went into each piece, simple is not the correct descriptor here. And the use of storyboards in filmmaking to create an illustrated guide to the flow of the production of a film is not really a comparison here as well, since each board is its own scrapbook collection or singular tale, and often each individual historic capsule is only related because of its proximity to the other things represented on the mapped microcosm of Vashon that is burned and/or painted somewhere nearby on the board.. They are all events to be experienced- all you have to do is cross over. The Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 1-4pm. It’s all there, from a tale of a trail to the roar of a road.