by SUSAN WOOD
Sidebar: Watching the real thing
SEBASTOPOL ARTIST AND TWO NORTH COAST INNKEEPERS to echo an eco-friendly message to passing motorists and mammals -- you're welcome here.
Sculptor Warren Arnold, 65, has chosen a home for a unique, up-close-and-personal symbol of the grand and once-endangered eastern Pacific gray whale on the mammal's migration path.
An environmentalist at heart, Arnold is donating one in a series of six 7-foot, 1,200-pound marble sculptures staggered along the California coastline to the grounds of the Lost Whale Bed & Breakfast north of Trinidad. There, a ceremony is planned a week after Earth Day to commemorate the environmental awareness campaign.
The creative gesture to the various seaside towns is intended to give the whales "safe passage," he said.
"I look at it as a teaching tool to save the environment," said the former school teacher, who gets out in nature to inspire his abstract artworks and chooses endangered species as his favorite subjects.
Most often spotted off the California coastline, gray whales are rebounding from estimates as low as 200 to a record high of 26,000 this year.
In fall, the eastern Pacific gray whales start the 10,000- to 14,000-mile journey from their feeding grounds in the arctic waters of the Bering Sea near Alaska to the warm waters off the Baja peninsula to calf and mate. They travel south at the rate of 4 miles per hour, biologists say.
Concerned whale enthusiasts flocking to the shore to find them last fall believed the mammals' biological clocks were tardy. But researchers confirmed their timers were still ticking, finally spotting them a few weeks later than anticipated on their journey farther offshore.
The high coastal bluffs of Humboldt and Del Norte counties are considered some of the best gray whale-viewing spots in the state.
The Trinidad totem, with six whales spiraling around the silvery-white column with light green accents, is the latest installation in The Whale Project. More than $30,000 in donations for Arnold's nonprofit program secures the series of six marble sculptures on the whale's migration path. Arnold adds a whale to each northward totem.
The Trinidad location marks the northernmost whale-watching point. The other five sites in his project include Big Sur the southernmost location Monterey Bay, Half Moon Bay, Sonoma Coast and Mendocino. Arnold is completing three totems at the Ventana Inn in Big Sur, the Little River Inn outside Mendocino and Trinidad's.
"We were absolutely floored," Lost Whale innkeeper Lee Miller said, recalling his first reaction to Arnold selecting his lodge for the honor.
"The whole idea of what he's doing really thrills us," he said. "It's something that's going to affect people he doesn't even know."
Co-manager Susanne Lakin thinks of the connection as "serendipity." Two of Arnold's friends stayed at the inn and recognized one of the sculptor's private-sale works that the innkeeping couple bought earlier and placed in the dining room area. The guests later recommended the bed and breakfast to their artist/friend as the sixth site for his donation.
The only requirement to caretaking the sculpture lies in its placement a location with a view of the ocean so gawkers can look out and see the real thing, Miller said of Arnold's philosophy.
"We see whales here all the time, always in pods," Miller said, looking out over the panoramic view of the rocky coastline off the grounds.
The innkeepers are combining the "celebration of nature" a week after the ceremonial day for the environment with the lodge's 10th anniversary party. The May 1 unveiling ceremony is slated for 1 p.m., at which the sculpture will be installed with the artist present.
To prepare for the whale totem's arrival, a concrete base was poured alongside Patrick's Point Drive next to the inn. Miller and Lakin hope to eventually put a few benches and viewing equipment around the totem, so motorists have reason to pull up and stay a while.
Miller's expecting more traffic along the route that runs parallel with U.S. Highway 101, but that's part of the experience. He's even considering developing a tourism brochure that plots all Arnold's totem sites for motorists and cyclists to see when touring the California coastline.
A scuba diver whose dream is to encounter a whale in the deep, Miller is "very excited" about being a caretaker of the sculpture, he said. The whale totem represents much more than a decorator piece for the couple's grounds. He sees it as a responsibility to remind people they share the Earth with other inhabitants, he said. For a lot of people, the closest they'll ever get to a whale may be the totem, and people care about what touches them, he said.
That's the relationship Arnold has with his work.
"I work with nature," he said. The sculptor of 20 years transforms his environmental education into environmental art hammering, sawing, grinding, sanding and polishing a piece he chips at over time.
It's common for the self-taught artist to start a piece, put it away and return to it when he's more inspired to finish the work-in-progress. He wears a mask and ear plugs because practicing his craft is a dirty and noisy business in his outdoor workshop.
"I'm into power equipment," he said, admitting he enjoys the occasional trip to the hardware store.
Arnold never tracks how long it takes him to complete a sculpture, he said, as he often juggles about 15 pieces at once. He usually hires an intern to apprentice with him, but it takes a unique personality, he said. One teenage boy lasted one day, because he was "impatient" with the progress of his work by afternoon.
"The most important thing is patience," he said, adding to the list talent, forearm strength and the motivation "to have something to say."
Arnold chose a "totemic" form for the sculptures because the upward nature of the shape brings a sense of the spiritual to the art, he said. And, Arnold sees whales as spiritual creatures.
The artist is using marble on the near-complete whale series because of its smooth surface, though he works with various types of rock from stone quarries located around the world. The marble for the Lost Whale totem came from India. He also buys marble from New Zealand, Italy, California, Utah and Vermont.
But it's still the concept that drives the art, he said. When Arnold found he had many ideas stored up during his teaching days more than 20 years ago, he discovered it was hard "to put down the tools and return to teaching" after summer breaks.
He decided to delve into his craft full-time, hoping his low-overhead mentality and organic garden would sustain a life for him and his landscape architect wife Maile.
Demand soon mushroomed into a thriving business. Many people who run across his work special order their own sculptures. Flowers are favorite subjects, he said. For a bear sculpture, he used a coarser rock to emulate its fur.
Arnold has created so many sculptures, he couldn't venture a guess as to how many. "The next (piece) is the one that always interests me, not the one I did," he said.
The artist never seems to run out of ideas, he said, adding traveling helps. While on a rafting trip a few years ago, the sheer rock-eroded walls of a river canyon inspired a piece solely dedicated to the rock formation.
Some sculptures are wild-looking. Some are more involved than others. Sometimes he sees artful images in dreams. He's currently working on an octopus and a series of a goddess surfing a whale.
EARLY WHALERS CALLED THE GRAY WHALE the "devilfish" because females strongly defend their calves against enemies, including killer whales, sharks and humans.
These whales were believed near extinct early in the 20th century. But full protection since 1946 has allowed them to increase their numbers significantly, and they were removed from the endangered species list five years ago. Habitat change in their breeding grounds in Baja because of a proposed salt mine now represents their primary threat.
In recent days, concern has escalated over 54 dead whales reported off the shores of Baja California, with a handful more fatalities in Pacific Northwest waters, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"Any break in the (food) chain could put (the population) in jeopardy," said Tim Broadman, the NMFS representative based in Eureka.
Some biologists believe the fatalities may be a sign the population is not as healthy because of a decrease in the amount of food available in the Bering Sea. Better record-keeping was also cited as another reason.
The answer may be as simple as the whales' sheer comeback numbers, regional and local biologists and zoologists say.
The numbers of dead gray whales along their migration path are "what we expect to see," NMFS wildlife biologist Joseph Cordaro said.
"We think, most likely, the salt-mine plant caused people to pay attention (to their deaths)." added Cordaro, the point-man where fatality numbers are kept in Long Beach.
Close to home, one dead gray whale washed ashore on the south spit of the Klamath River mouth just three weeks ago.
Dawn Goley, a Humboldt State University assistant professor of zoology, coincidentally took a class to the area to study seals and found the 25-foot whale that later washed back out from shore.
Goley, who takes "stranding" reports on whales every year, said there's no cause for alarm. A few hundred whales are usually stranded onshore every year. "It's a huge, long coast," she said.
Heightened awareness has "spawned a more concentrated research effort," she said, agreeing with Cordaro.
Whale excitement has even reached Eureka's Clarke Memorial Museum in a display called the Whale Tales Art Exhibit. The show, running through the end of this month, features 25 tales about whales that were written by Humboldt County school children.
Enthusiasm over whale tails has also reached the state Assembly in Sacramento. Two weeks ago, a bill authored by Assemblywoman Virginia Strom-Martin designed to increase funding for coastal access projects moved through the Assembly Transportation Committee.
AB 809 creates a new California Coastal Conservancy account, with funds coming from motorists buying "whale tail" license plates earmarked exclusively for maintenance and operation of coastal projects like the Coastal Cleanup Day and the Adopt-A-Beach program. Currently, when California motorists buy the designer plate, Strom-Martin contends these projects don't see enough of the funds.
"I believe this money should go to what the license plate signifies the coast," she said.
by Susan Wood
Photos courtesy of Warren Arnold
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