Mourning Tom Jay: ‘watershed shaman,’ poet, bronze artist

Posted 11/20/19

Tom Jay, who was well known for his contribution to bringing the summer chum back to Chimacum Creek, as well as for his bronze sculptures and his poetry, died on Nov. 10 after a battle with cancer. He was 76.

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Mourning Tom Jay: ‘watershed shaman,’ poet, bronze artist

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At the Illahee Preserve off Prospect Avenue, a small trail leads down to the Chimacum Creek. In the fall, as water drips from the tree canopy overhead, summer chum salmon lay in wait in the gurgling stream below.

They summon their last reserves of strength and when rains swell the creek or some other signal comes, they leave the soft eddy and, with a dramatic splash, breast the rising waters upstream to their birthplace, where they will complete their life cycle: spawning and then dying. Their eggs will become a new generation of salmon, who will start the cycle over again.

The summer chum salmon were once lost to Chimacum Creek. Thirty years ago, when a culvert washed out, the spawning ground for the summer chum was devastated and the fish disappeared.

Like first responders helping those injured after a natural disaster, a small group of volunteers knew that action needed to be taken, fast.

This group was spurred on by the passion of Tom Jay, a local poet, a sculptor and a lover of the environment.

“He saw something that needed to be done,” said Al Latham, director of the Jefferson County Conservation District, who worked beside Jay in the Wild Olympic Salmon group. “The salmon became his totem.”

Jay, who was well known for his contribution to bringing the summer chum back to Chimacum Creek, as well as for his bronze sculptures and his poetry, died on Nov. 10 after a battle with cancer. He was 76.

Jay left behind his wife, fellow artist Sara Mal Johani, and his son Dru Jay.

He also left behind a community of people who heard of his death and turned out in force just two days later to mourn his passing. On Nov. 12, poets, writers, artists, bronze casters, sculptors, scientists, conservationists, farmers, family and friends gathered at Finnriver Farm & Cidery to celebrate the impact he had on Jefferson County and the Chimacum Valley.

Nearly 150 people attended the memorial, bringing enough pie to feed the entire county, instruments in hand to play music, songs to sing and stories to tell.

“Tom was always my hero,” said Carol Jordan, his younger sister, who flew in from Texas. “I just want to thank this whole community. You have shown so much love to Dru and Sara and Tom. I think the love that he has shown all of you will help us believe in love, believe in nature and believe in possibilities.”

BELIEVE IN NATURE

Jay loved salmon. This love showed through in his dedication to bringing back the summer chum to Chimacum Creek.

Jay and a group of volunteers broke up and removed sediment from the washout so that fish could spawn again.

With a special agreement with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the group of volunteers began to raise salmon eggs in a small hatchery in Discovery Bay. They transferred these eggs to Chimacum Creek in order to re-start the natural salmon cycle in the creek.

“He was good at having clear visions,” Latham said. “The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife was pretty reluctant to let a bunch of amateurs play with these fish. But this plan we came up with became a model that is used all over now.”

The return of the summer chum to Chimacum Creek, under the guidance of Jay and Johani’s group, Wild Olympic Salmon, was a massive success.

But besides restoring habitat to what it once was, the project also kickstarted a massive movement to bring back salmon to the Olympic Peninsula.

“The salmon restoration was the beginning of so much that we take for granted now,” said David Sullivan, a Jefferson County commissioner who attended the memorial.

Sullivan pointed to the multitude of restoration groups that exist now: North Olympic Salmon Coalition, the Northwest Watershed Institute, the Jefferson Land Trust, among others. These groups are all working in different ways to restore natural riparian and watershed habitat to improve the health of our rivers, streams and oceans.

“Tom said his favorite philosopher was ‘Manual Labor’,” said Terry Lawhead, one of Jay’s close friends. It may have been a joke, but Jay lived it: He was a ‘get your hands dirty’ kind of conservationist. He was often seen wearing waders, knee-deep in a muddy creek bed.

“He had a reverence for all life,” Latham said. “But the salmon were his focus.”

BELIEVE IN ART

Gongs rang out as community members gathered in the barn at Finnriver. Outside, the melodic ringing of a bell that had been cast in bronze by Tom Jay melted into the foggy night. This bell was one of many sculptures Jay created over his years of making art—which was deeply connected to his love of nature.

“He always loved the outdoors,” said Carol Jordan, Jay’s sister. “He was very athletic and had football scholarships in college. But a back injury kept him from pursuing that. That’s when he got interested in art and bronze casting.”

According to Jordan, Jay and his siblings grew up moving around the country, since their father worked for Standard Oil. But his interest in art brought him to the Pacific Northwest.

Back in the 60s, Jay had quit college when he was first introduced to the process of metal casting by Ontario artist Ed Dron.

Jay begged Dron to take him on as an apprentice, which he did. When he finished that apprenticeship in 1966, Jay started Riverdog Bronze Foundry in Algona, near Tacoma.

“We were the first art bronze foundry north of San Francisco,” Jay said in an interview with Leader reporter Robin Dudley in 2017.

After he’d moved it to Chimacum in the early 1970s, Jay met his wife Sara Mal Johani when she brought a piece in to be cast.

“That’s how we met,” Jay told The Leader. “And we’ve been casting and teaching bronze casting ever since.”

Jay built the first bronze casting facility for Seattle University. He then went on to construct casting facilities at the University of Washington and received an MFA from the University of Washington.

At Riverdog, Jay cast sculptures for notable Pacific Northwest artists such as Tony Angell, Hilda Morris, Phil Levine, Richard Kirsten, Louise McDowell, George Tsutakawa, and others.

He also cast some of his most famous pieces, such as the Salmon Woman—a sculpture of a Native woman circled with a river of salmon that stands at the Highland Community Center in Bellevue.

Recently, Jay sculpted a salmon bench and schools of bronze cast salmon for Cove Park, a community pocket park near the Fauntleroy ferry terminal in West Seattle.

Here at home, residents of Jefferson County are familiar with Jay and Johani’s famous “Fin,” the migrating salmon sculpture large enough to fit humans inside, which travels around the Northwest and the county in an effort to celebrate and promote salmon restoration projects.

Jay and a crew of about 10 volunteers assembled Fin in a matter of weeks, starting with rebar for the salmon’s ribs and outline, followed by layers of chicken wire, plaster and fiberglass.

The 2,510-pound salmon model has a 360-degree mural painted on its interior; If you’re a child, or an adult who is small enough, you can crawl inside Fin’s open mouth, and see a recreation of the salmon’s natural habitat, complete with rivers, trees and predator species.

BELIEVE IN WORDS

Much like a salmon’s life cycle is one continuous thread—from the spawning of eggs to the migration to sea, and then back up the streams to start all over again—Jay’s artwork, his love of the outdoors and his love of words were all connected.

This was perhaps most visible through his poetry, which often spoke of the salmon, or of the beauty of the natural world. But they also spoke of community, of art and tradition.

“Tom was always deeply aware of how words resonated for him and in people’s minds, hearts and souls,” said Terry Lawhead, Jay’s friend. “He would search for the origin of words, ponder that, and express them in ways that caused them to affect listeners and readers.”

He had the ability to weave words together to make a sound much like the resounding ring of the bells he would cast in bronze. As friends and family gathered at Finnriver to share stories of Jay, his wisdom and way with words were reflected through their own choice of sharing: many made poems or crafted melodic stories to share, “in Tom’s style.”

“I believe his sincere lifelong soul work resulted in wanting to know how to best reflect the world in all of its manifestations,” Lawhead said. “This included everything, including the digging into word origin. It almost is considered routine for authors to offer up a quick referral to what a word ‘means,’ and I believe Tom was among the first to realize the importance of staying deep within word origins.”

BELIEVE IN COMMUNITY

Jay’s body lay in a wooden boat at Finnriver Nov. 12 as a community of people came and paid their respects, leaving tokens and gifts.

“He was important to so many people,” said John Powers, who apprenticed with Jay and is now an artist in Chicago. “Moving around Port Townsend with him, it became very clear.”

Powers described Jay stopping and talking to just about anyone when he walked around downtown Port Townsend.

“There were the boat building guys, poet guys, the cafe guys,” he said. “There were dairy farmers, loggers, guys who came in because they broke something and needed it fixed, guys who needed a well.”

Through his many works—whether it was bronze casting, networking with farmers and loggers and conservationists to protect salmon habitat, crafting poetry and reading his work aloud, or just heading to the cafe, Jay was a known fixture in Port Townsend and Jefferson County.

“Oregon Poet Laureate Kim Stafford was with Tom the evening he died,” Lawhead said. “He said that Tom, specifically, and Port Townsend—the Quimper Peninsula of people and place—gave him more than he can ever say when he was a younger man searching for how he works.”

While Jay will no longer be seen walking down Water Street, or in his bronze studio, or in Chimacum, knee-deep in a muddy creek bed during a restoration project, or reading his poetry at a bar or cafe in town, he will be seen in all the places his art and his words touched.

And he will be seen in the salmon.

“For all we know, Tom Jay’s spirit will soon be moving out and away from us with the wind or with the flow of Chimacum Creek, past the heart of the Dragon, into the straits and out into the deep dark ocean,” said Peter Bahls, director of the Northwest Watershed Institute during Jay’s memorial, reading a piece he wrote for Jay. “Until next year, that is, when a flash of silver is seen sliding through the sea, then again a dark shape, a gliding form, one among many, waiting stoically at the mouth of Chimacum Creek, waiting with a glad heart for rain - to return to the land and people he loved.”

This report draws on prior Leader stories written by Kirk Boxleitner and Robin Dudley.

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Justin Hale

We were blessed and made richer having shared Tom Jay for a brief time. Tom left behind a Legacy that will carry on for many generations.

Wednesday, November 20