“A self-taught painter, Charles Krafft began his career in earnest in 1969 at the age of 20 after relocating from San Francisco to the rural Skagit Valley in northern Washington State. Formerly home to mystic painter Morris Graves, this area became central to a group of artists collectively known as the Northwest School. Influenced by the beauty of their natural surroundings and readings of Eastern philosophy, these elder artists had already developed the acknowledged style of the region by the time Krafft took up residence. He lived in Fishtown, an enclave of a younger generation of artists and poets living in rustic simplicity in abandoned fishermen’s shacks along the banks of the Skagit River.”
If LaConner in the 1960s seemed like something from a dreamtime to Bobby Racanello, then Fishtown was even further from the ordinary. It was far out, off the map, and not found by the usual means. One needed an invitation, as much by the place itself as by its residents. One did not ask directions on how to get to Fishtown, but it might be discovered. One did not ask how to behave when visiting Fishtown – that was either apparent or it was not. The selection process was natural, as un-abstract as possible.
“The splendor of the Skagit delta has always been a draw for artists, but the closest thing to a real art colony the area ever experienced was the emergence of an exotic hippie settlement in the abandoned squatters’ shacks at Fishtown in the late 1960s. Fishtown was a prolonged experiment in the style of deliberate simplicity celebrated by Thoreau and inspired by the example of two legendary Northwest Zen Buddhists, Morris Graves and Gary Snyder. I can say this some authority because I was the self-proclaimed mayor of Fishtown. Throughout the 70s, Fishtown existed as a year-round community and marshy Mecca for a constant stream of nomadic young visitors from Seattle, San Francisco and points beyond. It was one of the region’s most visible symbols of the youth quake that swept the country in the 60s.”
But Fishtown was not visible, it was shrouded in mist. No one saw it, but many people heard about it and knew it was there. It was a word passing from mouth to mouth, but very few photographs were taken.
Bo Miller lived next door to Krafft. Their cabins were connected by a boardwalk that snaked through the marsh. Miller was a sculptor and architect. He designed and built his own cabin in a style that fit in with “established” shacks. Art Jorgensen had his shack further down the boardwalk, he was also a sculptor. Paul Hansen, a poet and Chinese scholar, lived in between Miller and Jorgensen. And there were others, but it was actually a very small place with a very small permanent population.
The boardwalk was never in good repair. It was rickety, some of the boards were loose, and some were missing. The small branch of an alder tree grew across the boardwalk at one place. One had to push the branch down and step over it, or stoop and get under it – but no one ever cut it off. Two seconds with a lopper would have done the job, but the branch remained unharmed for years, and every day it was in the way – in the way of all visitors and all residents, going back and forth.
So some visitors to Fishtown might have thought the residents were too lazy or too spaced out to “fix” the branch, or to nail down the rickety boards. They were welcome to that thought. Yet the branch was there because it was there, and things don’t need to be fixed because they are not broken. The branch was not “in the way” it was the Way – a concrete symbol.
LaConner cherished all its particularity in the 1960s. Every house and every street had its own identity. The streets had no names. They had names from the original town plat, but street signs had never been erected, and lifelong residents literally did not know the name of the street they lived on. And the houses had no numbers. LaConnerites always pick up their mail at the post office, so they had mail box numbers, but no street addresses. Houses were referred to by name – “Whitney’s house,” even in the newspaper. Street locations were “in front of Whitney’s house.” Everybody who lived in LaConner and read that in the newspaper understood what was meant. The few visitors only had to stop and ask directions. The directions were personal and particular, not from a map.
Fishtown was even more particular – trees were known, branches were known, even leafs were known – that was the point, and the point was not subject to explanation. One got the point or one did not.
Not every one in Fishtown was an artist. Keith Brown lived upstream from Krafft, a good hundred yards. A footpath went over the hill, up along a steep rocky path, and then down the other side to where Brown lived, next door to Steve Herrold’s cabin. He was the Village Idiot. Brown was determined to be criminally insane in 1987 and was remanded to the state institution at Steilacoom, and has remained there ever since. But he was cared for in Fishtown for many years. At that time people considered Keith Brown to be about half-crazy. He worked, he did odd jobs and mowed lawns. He occupied his time in his river cabin by constructing electronic devices of alternative energy. He erected a windmill on the roof of his cabin and used it to power his radio and a 15-watt light bulb for reading. He made a switch out of common table fork. He was clever that way, and a friendly fellow as well, but he spouted nonsense at times and behaved crudely toward women. A non-professional analysis is that he lacked social skills.
Brown’s situation is described here because it is a matter of public record and because it is exemplary of a kind of caring by a community that protected him from some of his own impulses. Brown was looked after by his neighbors in Fishtown, although never in a formal way and never in a way that might make it a burden or special responsibility. Keith Brown was just around, and there were plenty of people for him to be around with; they all had the un-hurried time to let his nonsense and crudity pass by like so much wind.
Fishtown was more than a quiet space for artists, it was a shelter for Brown, and his “insights” were the stuff of poetry along with the moonlight and the tide.
When the no-growth people spoke against the construction of the sewer system in LaConner, when they objected to the expansion of the marina, they were speaking for the benefit of an un-hurried pace. Sund wrote in his election pamphlet, “Right now, most people are not satisfied. They feel that things are out of hand, moving too fast….”
Things were moving too fast for people to spend time with Keith Brown, and he began to get out of hand.
A story I wrote in 1986 describes what happened. The story can be considered anecdotal, it does not prove a case.
“Keith Brown, a 14-year resident of LaConner, set fire to the roof of the Lighthouse Restaurant, March 14, and was arrested for First Degree Arson. He is in Western State Hospital now.
“First Degree Arson is a Class A felony, defined as ‘knowingly and maliciously causing a fire or explosion in a building in which there were at the time human beings who were not participants in the crime.’ The maximum penalty is life imprisonment.
“William McCann, Brown’s court appointed attorney, stated that Brown –
‘lacks ability to assist me in his own defense and that the incompetence is due to a mental disease…. Mr. Brown has stated many bizarre and improvable things including the following:
‘That a girl friend by the name of Lisa Elder has either been mutilated or murdered by agents of the federal gov’t.
‘That the federal gov’t. has identified Keith Brown as the “Anti-Christ” and dispatched Ronald Reagan and/or the FBI to kill him.
‘That there is a conspiracy to intercept his mail and that the police agencies in Skagit County are directly involved in this conspiracy.
‘That the day of his arrest, he told the police officer, “I just found out that you killed Lisa.”
‘That at one time Keith Brown apparently contacted the Skagit County Rape Relief for help, claiming that he had been raped by society and was entitled assistance.
‘Brown also “demanded that I contact the ACLU for him…when I suggested that he consider a not guilty plea by reason of insanity plea, he ‘fired’ me.”’
“Brown was determined to be incompetent and was given a civil commitment.”
Fishtown began to change around 1980. Charlie Krafft moved to Seattle, so did Steve Herrold. Bo Miller and his wife had a baby. They moved to LaConner and rented a house. Paul Hansen moved out. He moved to a cabin on the road with electricity and running water. Art Jorgensen remained in his place and became a recluse. He never went to town anymore. The other cabins remained uninhabited. The immigration to rural parts – back to the land – was petering out. The lifestyle of a candle-lit cabin was not winning new adherents.
Brown was isolated in Fishtown and he began to spend more time in LaConner, but his friends were busier and there was more traffic. The voices Brown heard got louder and his antics became more disruptive. His behavior began to strain the tolerance of LaConnerites who were willing to put up with fairly outlandish behavior and took pride in that; but women became frightened by his advances and by his assumption of relations that did not exist. Finally he snapped and started a fire on the Lighthouse roof, and that act gave a closure. Brown was certifiable. And his downfall was part of the cost of development – so people felt at the time.
Tom Robbins, in his art pamphlet of 1974, said more about Skagit Valley artists. Making a generalization or describing a pattern, he said, “[Skagit Valley artists] vary too extremely and attitude to constitute anything vaguely resembling a ‘school.’
“…. The artists who reside in and near LaConner have social relationships that are at best ambiguous. Professionally there scarcely are relationships at all…. never is there heard an approximation of the passionate debates that warm artist bars and lofts on the East Coast or in Southern California.”
Robbins said the artists of the LaConner area had an “aversion to art politics.” But he was speaking of himself. There were passionate debates in LaConner among the artists and poets. There were meetings and collaborations. There were group shows of artists, and group readings of poets. There were alliance and feuds. Especially with the poets, there was a definite school, the evidence for that being a certain poet, Jim Bertolino, who was not considered a part of that school and was not invited to group readings. Bertolino’s poetry was very Italian and gregarious and very non-Zen. He did not fit in.
Gary Snyder’s tight and spare poetry, his extensive education in Japan, and his earth-centered, regional approach – those were the guidelines of the school.
In June two oak fell,
rot in the roots
Chainsaw in September
in three days one tree
bucked and quartered in the shed
The school’s chief exponent was Robert Sund and its name was the Great Blue Heron Society. Sund never compromised in his dedication to being a poet. He never married (Sund married briefly in the 1960’s before moving to LaConner) and he never owned property. He never took a day job.
But he painted as well as wrote poetry, and he could sell his paintings for a few hundred dollars. And he might earn fifty or a hundred dollars for a reading. Nevertheless Sund was frequently broke and constantly on the make. He suffered the indignity of begging and borrowing, but if ever a friend or acquaintance suggested that a poet was not worthy of his labor, then Sund became unyielding and resolute, and was prepared and willing to declaim poetry and its value until the tavern closed.
With that quality of determination and with the quality of his poetry, Sund became a regional leader. Paul Hansen belonged, as did Clifford Burke of Anacortes. Several poets from Port Townsend were also included – Tim McNulty, Sam Hamill, and Finn Wilcox. The list is much larger, but there never was a list. They published many chapbooks and several books, often in collaboration. One was Redding Leaves and Welcome to God’s Country, poems and verse by Glenn Turner, in 1979. Charlie Krafft illustrated this volume, Guy Anderson did the cover, and Clifford Burke did the graphic design.
The new publisher of the Puget Sound Mail was favorably disposed to poetry. Dick Fallis of Mount Vernon bought the paper from Pat O’Leary in 1973. O’Leary had completed 33 years as editor by 1973 and that year also marked the one hundredth anniversary of its founding in 1873.
Fallis was a congenial man, but a garrulous writer and a poor businessman. Fallis wrote, in his first issue, “I have some authority for this from Henry David Thoreau, who is one of my ideals as a journalist. Something of what Thoreau accomplished over 100 years ago, squatting beside New England’s Walden Pond and faithfully reporting his observations, is one of the things I will attempt to do here, sitting besides Swinomish Channel at the edge of Puget Sound.”
Fallis was a thumbsucker! Thoreau would be the last man on earth to turn out a weekly newspaper on deadline. Fallis’s opening statement did not augur well for the economic future of the Puget Sound Mail. Fallis composed no hymns to progress. The Rotary Club lost its front-page prominence and its members took notice.
But this was the decade when George McGovern ran for President and many things seemed possible, a green revolution being one of them; many alternatives to progress were proposed. Fallis published poetry. The small-town weeklies of frontier days had published poetry – the local doggerel and Kiplingesque rhymes, but that custom had died out after World War I.
In LaConner in the 1970s young people were smoking marijuana by the cloud full at the 1890s. They were skinny-dipping out on the Sand Spit and camping everywhere. Fallis gave no notice of these happenings in his paper; he did not promote it or criticize it; but he did publish poetry. In 1974 he published on the front page a Swedish folk song from the island of Gotlund, translated by Robert Sund, with calligraphy by Steve Herrold. There were many others poems published, although not in every issue, and the poems were simply presented, but never promoted or expounded upon.
Poetry and art had its season in LaConner. The tourist trade was building, but it was only beginning. Retired people were building and buying homes in Shelter Bay, but still in small numbers. The economy was not hot and the rents were still cheap. A high point was reached in the early 1980s and what was a culmination, although it did not seem so to the participants at the time. That high point was the LaConner Arts Foundation, guided and organized by Arthur Greeno who owned a frame shop and who had good business skills and an endless patience for the dramatics of artists and their unconventional lives.
Greeno founded the LaConner Arts Foundation as a non-profit. The foundation staged elegant exhibits with good wine and live music. Greeno smoothed and made seamless the endless bickering over whose paintings got the most prominent spot, and over what poet would be featured at a reading.
Kenneth Rexroth was a grand old man to this school. He had once spent a summer at the Sourdough Lookout in the Cascade Mountains, which is now in North Cascade National Park. Gary Snyder occupied that the Sourdough Lookout in the 1950s. This was the lore and Rexroth was one of the ancestors. He came to LaConner in his very old age and gave one of his last public readings, while sitting in an easy chair in front of a log fire at the Garden Club.
That was the culmination, but the source of this creative effort had become less potent, the conditions and circumstances had altered, and opposition was forming. Ronald Reagan became President of the United States and Alan Pentz founded a rival newspaper in LaConner.
Pentz started the Channeltown Press in 1976. Pentz had worked for the Skagit Valley Herald, Skagit county’s daily newspaper, and had worked for O’Leary when O’Leary owned the Puget Sound Mail; but Pentz lost out to Dick Fallis in the bidding to take over the Puget Sound Mail in 1973.
Pentz was a grouch and a cynic. His prose was funny at times, but always with a tone of bitterness. He composed no hymn to progress, nor against it. Like Fallis, he had no point of view concerning the future of the town, at least not deliberately expressed in an editorial. He operated on a shoestring; the battle between the two papers was on and to the death. LaConner could not support two newspapers. Fallis continued to fumble in his vacuous way, but he decided he had had enough. He sold the paper to Bonnie McDade and her husband in 1979.
Fallis then established a bakery in Mount Vernon and he was successful at that. Bonnie McDade story’s is tragic. She and her husband had made a good living in advertising in Seattle. He was the business brain in the partnership, and she was the creative talent. Shortly after they purchased the paper, he died in a plane crash, leaving her in grief and the business in a shambles. Art Hupy donated his considerable professional talent as a photographer to the paper at no charge. Madeleine Free, Bonnie McDade’s sister, put in long hours setting type and laying out pages; Wally Funk, who published the Oak Harbor weekly and who owned the printing press where the Puget Sound Mail was printed, extended credit as far as he possibly could; many people were tender and forgiving for McDade in her travail. But deadlines were missed and bills were not paid. Meanwhile the Channeltown Press – no poetry! no pretty photographs! – but persistent and faultless in its limited scope – was in relentless pursuit. The Puget Sound Mail, the oldest weekly in Washington State, published its last issue in April, 1982 after 109 years.
During this heyday of poetry in LaConner, Robert Sund fought a running feud with every other artist in town. LaConner art was very political in that sense, despite what Tom Robbins suggested: that the artists lived their own lives and pursued their own career with only a casual community identity.
Sund maintained strongly that his poetry, and the poetry of his guides, Gary Snyder, et al., must be regional and earth-centered and inspired by Asian masters of long ago. He recognized no other style. Jim Bertolino lived on Guemes Island, taught at various community colleges, and was a most abundant poet – abundant in productivity, and abundant in style. Bertolino’s style was cheerful, exuberant, generous and of European provenance. Bertolino was Italian via Cincinnati. But Sund was Swedish via Ming China and committed to a spare brevity.
Sund successfully prevented Bertolino from partaking of any poetry events in LaConner – not Bertolino, or any other kind of poet like him. There was a certain kind of poetry, not formally known as the “Great Blue Heron Society” because that was never more than a loose moniker meaning, more or less, “we few drinking sake on the river in the moonlight,” that was acceptable. Bertolino and his ilk, and to Sund it was an ilk, were never invited to the party.
The second part of Sund’s politics were schizophrenic. It can only be posed as a contradiction, “We ought to gather together as a community and be organized, and I ought to be the leader and sole decision-maker of any group so formed.” This is put in psychological terms because Sund drove his compatriots crazy. He was a powerful and attractive leader, but he could fundamentally not cooperate or compromise. Sund broke up meetings and acquired an impressive roster of ex-friends. This was pure art politics, it was never over money, property or women.
At Sund’s funeral celebration in November, 2001, this impressive roster of ex-friends, including Bertolino, came together and sang his praises, because they all loved him. It’s just that none of them could get along with him while he was alive.
Tom Robbins had no part of this. His status was awesome, separate and unique in the LaConner community. Robbins was, by nature, an intensely non-political individualist.
“…it has become my strong impression that human institutions and collectivities, as distinct from individual people, are impervious to grace….I feel that nations, churches, political parties, classes and formal associations of almost all kinds operate at the lowest level of intelligence and moral sensibility. This is, in part, because they are not organized as an individual is organized. They act upon rules and verbal communications which, when compared with the organic nervous system, are of extreme crudity. It is this which gives us the feeling that most social problems are too complicated, for, in the same way, the human body would seem too complicated were it not that the nervous systems—as distinct from conscious attention and memory—can handle an immense number of variables at the same time. Societies, insofar as they are restricted to linear, strung out, forms of communication, can handle very few variables. Therefore government and corporations, in attempting to keep up with the infinitely varied and multi-dimensional process of nature, resort to words on paper—to laws, reports, and other records—which would take lifetimes for any intelligent being to read, much less assimilate. Yet for all these mountains of paper covered in small print, only a tiny amount of the natural process has been described, and we do not really know whether what we select for description are actually the most important features of the process. In other words, our social organizations are not organic.”
Any self-respecting mystic in the Skagit Valley would have endorsed this philosophy declaimed by Alan Watts. To put it quickly, meetings are a waste of time, and Robbins never attended one – never joined, period.
Robbins was born in North Carolina in 1936, and reared in a small town in Virginia of Baptist parents. He served in the Air Force in the 1950’s. He came to Seattle in 1962 and became the art critic of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Knowing the work of Morris Graves and Guy Anderson brought him to the Skagit Valley where he gradually became a permanent resident. Robbins firmly rejected the conservative politics and the fundamentalist religious values of his Southern up-bringing, but he retained his Southern grace and courtesy. He used the richness of Southern speech in his writing.
Robbins first novel, Another Roadside Attraction, was published in 1971. It was peopled with recognizable LaConner characters, no novelist being capable of pure invention – Aurora Jellybean and the Asparagus Moonlight Brigade, for instance. They were real people, although those were not their real names. But Robbins was as close to pure invention as humanly possible. It could not be said that his books were “about” anything, much less LaConner.
He was devoted to his working method, which required extensive solitude – when he was writing a book, he was not hanging out, although he was fairly sociable otherwise.
Robbins’ work has escaped from academic investigation and literary entanglement. He actually was an individualist. He never sought an institutional imprimatur.
Robbins was unique in LaConner. A novelist, he made more money than a lawyer. No one in LaConner knew what to make of that, although the phenomenon of his success and celebrity was deemed benign
The books were bestsellers. Nubile women came to LaConner for the sole purpose of getting up close and personal with the author. Robbins could no longer hang out at the tavern. He began to wear dark glasses in public. His phone number was unlisted.
LaConner was proud of his success and protective of his privacy. It became a matter of local integrity to treat him as nobody special and to keep curious outsiders at bay.
Robbins’ novels did have a special relation to the vegetable kingdom of the Skagit Valley. The beets of the valley played a key role in Jitterbug Perfume. Beets grow in the Skagit Valley. They are grown two years and harvested for their seed, and the seed is sold to other farmers, It is a specialized, complicated business – an integral part of LaConner history. Two seed companies, Tillinghast Seed and Puget Sound Seed, existed in LaConner from the beginning.
The key to the mystery of Jitterbug Perfume, not revealed until the end of the book, is that the perfume recipe needed to include jasmine, citron and beet seed. Beet seed has a peculiar musky odor – but who would know that? Only Tom Robbins and his neighbors in LaConner.
Robbins was an accomplished art critic during his years working for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and other publications, before he became a full-time novelist. In this writer’s opinion, there is very little art criticism worth reading, but Robbins was good. He was accurate and useful. His criticism actually served a purpose. And he maintained a special closeness with painters in the area – those visual artists. Their work inspired him.
Poets, local and otherwise, other novelists, great and small – he never mentioned them as an influence in his work. He did not need their words, but he did need the colors and shapes of artists like Guy Anderson, Richard Gilkey, Clayton James or Bill Slater –all local names – plus many others in Seattle.
Lightning did not strike twice. No other artist or poet in LaConner came near to Robbins in terms of income and fame. But by the 1970’s Guy Anderson was a revered artist with a national reputation and a comfortable income. He had a small house and studio designed and built on Caledonia Street where he lived until his death in 1998. He never bought a car, although he could have afforded one. He was never political either, but he was a gracious and sociable man, always willing to stop and talk to other townsfolk in his walks to the post office.
Anderson was a pure artist. He was no revolutionary.
“I was thinking about this, that there should be more attention, and particularly with young people and new people coming into the arts, more attention should be given to art history, rather than finding little methods of how to do things, and how to become famous over night, or how to be successful out in the world, rather than success within one's self.
“And I know, in knowing a number of painters and artists over the years, and having taught a little bit, that there's always the idea, well, isn't it a good idea to be successful out in the world? Well I suppose that that is one of the gratifications maybe, but I think it should be a secondary thing. That what you really want to do is to be hooked on the greatness of the whole art field for ten thousand years, and also, you should get hooked periodically on not just what is being done today, in the last 20 or 25 years, but what, you know, started in the caves ten thousand years ago.
“And then, also, concerning that whole area, that you should want to be successful within yourself and to accomplish the things that you feel are of the greatest importance. And that has very little to do with what's going out in the world in what would be called the commercial success of the art field today. Because so many of the people who are most successful in the art field today are regular commercial artists.”
Anderson never disparaged anyone, certainly not the new, spontaneous rebels of the counterculture, but he stressed the importance of practice and the importance of drawing from life, even though his paintings were almost entirely abstract. He stressed the importance of art history and that his own work, if it had any value, was a part of something eternal and universal.
Like the novels of Tom Robbins, Guy Anderson’s paintings were never about LaConner or about the Skagit Valley. The local landscape was never the content or the subject of his work, although it was the source of much of his inspiration.
But unlike Robbins and the other artists, Anderson placed himself within a continuum of Western artistic tradition.
Anderson’s paintings were prominently displayed. A mural of his, about five feet by ten feet, is in the foyer of the Skagit County Courthouse. It is purely abstract. It is proudly displayed although, one suspects, not greatly appreciated by the County Commissioners.
So Robbins was half right. There was no recognizable school of Skagit Valley painters. They knew each other and they often liked each other, but no more. There was a school of Skagit Valley poetry, but Robbins did not recognize it or join it.
LaConner, at the close of the period of this Thesis, in the early 1980s, was still a beautiful and inspiring place for artists, but it was no longer quite as cheap. The squeeze was on. The tourists were coming. Tourists do not buy poems, they buy “gifts” as the merchants like to put it, or “trinkets” as some other people say.
Retirees and the first of the long-distant commuters were bidding up property prices. Crafty farmers, who always tolerated hippies drifting across their property, began to sell old farmsteads for top dollars to equity refugees from California. It was over, except for the shouting, and the shouting was the election of 1983 in LaConner, and the final destruction of Fishtown in 1988.