John Powers was one of the art kids in his Chicago high school and he attracted trouble like a magnet.
“I was a truant case, I was a troublemaker, I really was,” Powers said …
John Powers was one of the art kids in his Chicago high school and he attracted trouble like a magnet.
“I was a truant case, I was a troublemaker, I really was,” Powers said from his home in New York state last week.
Struggling to stay afloat in the school system – Powers graduated with 1.2 GPA – he told one of his teachers in his senior year that he was interested in casting bronze. That innocent statement would send Powers across to the country to Chimacum to study under a master. But at the time,“I had no idea about the process,” he admitted.
Good thing his teacher did.
“I know a guy,” she told Powers. She’d gone to school with a Californian-turned-Pacific Northwest foundry owner and artist, Tom Jay.
“It kind of lit a fire under me,” Powers recalled.
He pestered his teacher until a connection was made. Then, in 1989, when he was 18, he hitchhiked across the country from Chicago.
Powers recalled being underprepared for the journey. With only a thin jacket, he said he was “really freezing my way across the country.” At night, he’d curl in his sleeping bag on the ground.
After a trucker dropped him off at the Mukilteo Ferry Terminal, he realized he’d missed the last boat. That meant one more night outdoors before catching the first ferry the next morning.
Riverdog Fine Arts, at the time the oldest continuously running foundry in the Pacific Northwest and the vision of founder Tom Jay, was located at the end of a dirt road in Chimacum.
“It was a hippie foundry,” Powers recalled.
It lacked running water, and there was a cistern instead.
Tall as a beanpole and about as thin, when Powers faced Jay, he thought was looking at Grizzly Adams. At 6-foot-4 and weighing 280 pounds, Jay had the mass of a brick you-know-what and a powerful presence.
The idea had been for Powers to interview with the co-op members who bought Jay out, and pick up a gig working and learning at the foundry.
But it was a no-go.
“The co-op didn’t hire me,” he said. “I think they caught me one too many times leaning on a broom.”
Back to Chicago, once more hitching his way. He ran out of money and food, but was revived by a corn dog a sympathetic trucker bought him after realizing the kid wasn’t eating.
“It was just about the best thing I ever had,” he said.
Powers may have left the foundry, but his art didn’t.
A clay caricature of Ronald Reagan — aka “Ray-gun” as a muscle man — was a lone reminder of the youth’s presence.
As it gathered dust, it kept catching Jay’s eye.
“Something about it spoke to him,” Powers said.
Jay contacted Powers, who had concocted a completely fictional internship with painter Pablo Solari to see just how serious Jay was.
“It was total smoke,” Powers said.
But Jay couldn’t help himself, and on July 5, 1989, Powers found himself flying across the country with his dog.
He spent the summer in a camper that had been abandoned on the property.
“It was kinda moldy and kinda weird,” he said, laughing. “It just sucked.”
The camper was only 6 feet wide, and he was 6-foot-1, so he was never able to fully stretch out. But before winter set in, he made a space for himself in the studio.
Jay and Powers clicked from the get-go.
“The friendship was pretty intense,” Powers said. And it was pretty odd, on the surface. There was the obvious physical contrast, a 20-year age gap, and a wide rift between urban and country dwelling.
“You have to picture how strange this is,” he said. When Jay asked if his dog chased cows, Powers was flummoxed.
Cows were found in zoos. His dog had never seen one.
One night, the two were walking down the road in the dark, and Powers started laughing. He told Jay he couldn’t see his hand.
“I’ve just never been outside and in the dark,” he recalled telling Jay.
The next three years, “I was like his body man,” Powers said of Jay.
His responsibilities were outside of the studio, too. He helped dig a well and fell trees.
Once, when the chainsaw blade became pinched by a partially felled tree, the two used a winch to bend the tree down. As the trunk came forward, Jay darted straight at it, grabbing the chainsaw and hurtling forward at a dead run.
“I was not quite as cool as Tom was,” Powers said.
The two did Tai Chi together. Powers made a cartoon highlighting the adventures of Jay as “Captain Nowhere” and himself as “Space Boy.”
Jay’s 9-year-old son Dru was like a little brother to Powers, and Powers became known in the neighborhood as someone the kids could cajole into taking them swimming, or heckle mercilessly. Every week, Powers, Jay, and Dru would take a sauna together, the boy complaining from his spot on the lowest bench about the men’s sweat dripping down.
Besides being a bronze master, Jay was an important part of the local community, Powers said. A man equally comfortable reading his poetry or giving a gallery talk, or chewing the fat with local farmers and loggers, his ability to move fluidly between different circles made an impression on the young apprentice.
“Coming from Chicago, I had never met an environmentalist,” Powers said, and here was one in the flesh.
Passionate about salmon and their critical role in the Pacific Northwest ecosystem, much of Jay’s art reflected a deep connection to the chum salmon. There’s “Salmon Woman,” a sculpture of a Native woman circled with a river of salmon that stands at the Highland Community Center in Bellevue, and a salmon bench and schools of bronze cast salmon in Cove Park, a community pocket park in West Seattle.
Perhaps the most unique of Jay’s collaborations with his wife Sara Mall Johani, was “Fin,” a 2,510-pound salmon model on a trailer, with a 360-degree mural painted on Fin’s interior. The enormous fish sits on a trailer and is used by the North Olympic Salmon Coalition to help educate audiences about the importance of native salmon. Then there’s the “Heroic Chum” bronze in front of the Shold Salmon Business Park in Port Hadlock, and the “Witness” bronze in front of the Jefferson County Library. At its dedication in 1997, Jay wrote that the Raven depicted in the sculpture is “sheltered from the weather by a salmon-skin rain shawl.… I imagine the Witness as a symbol of our own rambunctious curiosity at home in the salmon-sheltered world.”
As meaningful as it was to work on personal projects and assist Jay with his own art, Powers said he didn’t have the temperament be a bronze artisan. In three years, Jay had told him, he could be a master craftsman.
If he hadn’t become so in five years, it wasn’t in the cards.
Powers put in the six years, becoming that master.
“All my friends were in college, and I was at the end of a dirt road,” he said.
But ultimately, “the work of being an artisan is that you don’t have a choice,” Powers said, lamenting about some of the projects that walked through the door, bad pornography, retirees-turned artists; basically, other people’s projects.
Powers finally felt what it was that he wanted to do as an artist.
“I wanted to do something that people could look at and say, ‘well, I could make that,’” Powers said, gravitating toward blocks.
He was accepted in the prestigious Pratt Institute (which Jay had attended before dropping out and completing his degree at the University of Washington).
As Powers gravitated toward his own artistic expression, there was a falling out with Jay, centered, John recalled, on Powers referring to art as “ridiculous.”
After the two made up, and restored their good faith, Powers was able to see “what it was is that I wanted to leave and he wanted me to stay.”
Almost six years later to the month, Powers drove to New York, a skill he’d picked up while living on the Peninsula. After getting a full ride to art school, and being given a year of credit for his apprenticeship, Powers graduated in three years.
“I had this enormous advantage in that I’d been living with artists for six years,” he said.
When asked to share what he wanted to accomplish in an art career, he surprised his peers, saying, “I want to be an old artist.”
“I had seen something different in the quality,” he said of the work produced by artists with a lifetime art practice.
Jay was at the forefront of these influences. “He had this great depth,” Powers said.
Jay made the trip to Brooklyn to see Power’s first gallery show.
“I think he was proud,” Powers said.
Now, 27 years later, “Basically, I’m still playing with blocks,” Powers said.
That’s an incredibly understated way to describe Powers body of work. Crafting sculptures out of polystyrene, steel, plywood, paper and phenolic resin blocks, among other materials, his work has been shown internationally and was recently included in the 2018 Bruges Triennial art show in Belgium.
But his years in Chimacum shaped Powers beyond his own comprehension.
“My roots are still there,” he said.
In November 2019, Powers got the call that Jay, now 76, was succumbing to a battle with cancer.
“I missed seeing him by minutes,” he said. “Neither me nor his son got to be with him in that last day.”
“Neither of us had anything left unresolved,” Powers said, speaking for himself and Dru.
Powers stayed for the memorial and had plans to come back in the summer of 2020. The pandemic changed that.
Then, last May, he had an accident with a saw, slicing off the thumb and ring finger of his left hand.
It’s been a painful and deeply personal journey that Powers has courageously, with some dark humor, documented on Instagram. (Said humor includes a tiny casket made of paint stir sticks and a Rolling Stone’s song about thumbs.)
Right now, Powers is working on some paper collages, laminating layers of paper and glue to create three-dimensional works of art. He cannot cut the paper; a friend does it for him. And every time he has to hold a piece of paper down with his left hand, to apply glue with his right, he is forced to face what he calls “The Paw.”
“It requires me looking at my hand all day,” he said, and that’s pretty rough sometimes.
It seems Jay would know exactly what to say to Powers right now, who has just been approved for a prothesis that his doctor told him looks a little like a Terminator hand.
In fact, Jay is never far from Power’s thoughts.
“When I feel him most keenly is when I’m working with kids in my studio,” he said. “There’s things that would come out of my mouth where I was just channeling Tom Jay.”
In the introduction to one of his art shows, Jay wrote once, “For me, continuity comes from making relations with ideas and people and even your own mortality as time has gone on. Those things are very rich and very strong.”
It seems this connection lives on in Powers, who passes Jay’s wisdom forward, and who believes, at the heart of his art is a simple foundry at the end of a dirt road where two men forged the friendship of a lifetime.
1 comment on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here
Friday, January 14 Report this