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August 31, 2006

Art Beat

The Retreat


It's nearly sunset on one of the longest days of the year and the shadow creeping down the Marble Mountains begins to turn that brilliant, iridescent blue the painters have been waiting for. "There it is!" cries Ken Jarvela, as he and the other artists lined up facing the mountains frantically get to work, trying to capture the fleeting color before it disappears. "I think we have ourselves a paint-off here," notes local photographer Bill Pierson, observing from the sidelines.

Bill Cody, another photographer, begins a Howard Cosell-type narration, just to stir the pot: "... and they're off, ladies and gentlemen! Jim McVicker takes an early lead -- but wait -- Jarvela is gaining and has passed his opponent by two strokes! And it looks like Steve Porter is finding his stride..."

Left: Jim McVicker painting on Bear Basin Butte.
Photo by Steve Catton.

Most of the painters have been working since dawn, but they wield their brushes with renewed vigor. There's dissension regarding the actual color of that blue shadow. McVicker claims it's cobalt with a little cerulean. "It's purple," insists Duane Flatmo, "sort of a magenta-violet."

"It's a cool, aquamarine blue, cast onto this bowl-shaped canyon by the mountains in the foreground," Bob Benson later explained, describing the annual artist's retreat at the Bear Basin Butte lookout. "It's incredible against the greens of the mountains that are warmed by the orange light. It's completely impossible to paint."

"The shadow is a brilliant turquoise, too vivid to be believable," said Pierson, who has experienced this site far longer than any of the other artists. It was Bill, in fact, who helped develop the amenities on Bear Basin Butte, enabling the group (as well as the general public) to spend time in this remote region of the Six Rivers National Forest.

"I was initially inspired by a story I read in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1994, about a fire lookout called 'Rob's Hut' that had been adopted by a group of mountain bikers after it was no longer used to spot fires," he said. Like many lookouts, Rob's Hut had been closed due to new fire-spotting technology and a lack of maintenance funds. The mountain bikers who adopted the lookout agreed to restore and maintain it so the Forest Service could rent it out to campers. After visiting the site, Pierson and a couple of friends were so inspired they began searching for a lookout to adopt, one in their own backyard.

"All fire lookouts have great views, but we also wanted a site with no cell phone or microwave towers," Pierson said. The following year, he discovered Bear Basin Butte, with 360-degree views including the Siskiyou Wilderness area to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Pierson entered into a partnership with the Forest Service, agreeing to restore the historic lookout, build a 1930's-style cabin and continue maintaining both. The Forest Service rents these amenities to the general public, including Pierson and his friends, who journey there every spring. "I didn't originally envision it as an artist's retreat," he said. "That just sort of evolved."

Jim McVicker was the first painter Pierson invited to share the views from the lookout. "I've been going for five years now and -- not that I want to wish time away or anything -- but every year I can't wait to go back. The landscape is stunning, of course, but it's also a great chance to hang out with other artists. This is just an amazing, sensitive group of guys. Even though our work is very different, we're all supportive of each other's art."

Bob Benson agreed with McVicker's assessment. A self-described "modernist with early native influences," Benson said he gains fresh perspectives from his conversations with the realists. "We've grown into a community. We don't have a lot in common artistically, but there aren't any judgments, just a shared creative experience with other artists."

Benson recalls a memory of a "shared experience" while painting with Ken Jarvela in a forested area below the lookout. "I was working on this painting of a lightening-struck sugar pine and it was finally starting to come together. Ken gave me feedback on my painting that was really helpful." Benson remembers Jarvela telling him stories, including one about an uncle who hid booze in the windshield wiper container of his car. An avid naturalist as well as a painter, Jarvela also described the flora and fauna surrounding them.

"He started telling me about one of the birds, a junco. He explained how juncos nest low in the tree, but sing high up to distract predators. They fly in one direction with their white, bushy tail feathers open, then veer off so they can't be seen." Bob was quiet for a while, back in the moment. "It was like having poetry read to you," he finally said.

In spite of the overall supportive nature of the group, everyone gets caught up in the paint-off competitions. "You're losin' it, McVicker!" yells Jarvela when McVicker stops to dry his watercolor on the campfire between layers. "I'm kicking your ass!" The artists banter and work until there's no light left by which to paint.

During cocktail hour the paintings are displayed for a group critique and a winner is informally chosen, although it doesn't appear there's necessarily a consensus. Later, when the artists have finally put away their equipment, the group gathers on the deck of the lookout to watch the sunset. After a dinner cooked on the campfire, McVicker brings out his saxophone, Flatmo and Porter tune up their guitars and Jarvela sings with a voice Bill Pierson swears sounds exactly like the lead singer of REM. Although dawn comes early at this time of year, the artists stay up late, playing poker and laughing, reluctant to end the day.

An exhibition of paintings and photographs from the lookout retreat will be featured at Piante Gallery in Old Town Eureka from Sept. 1 through Oct. 4. Artists included in the show are Bob Benson, Steve Catton, Bill Cody, Duane Flatmo, Ken Jarvela, Bill Pierson, Steve Porter and Jim McVicker. This year's recipients of the "Pierson Retreat at Bear Basin Butte" stipend, Barbara MacDonald and Katherine Dilley, will also have work displayed.

The all-male Bear Basin retreat is a counterpart to the all-female retreat I participate in annually at another extraordinary location, a ranch on the Mad River, under the Iaqua Buttes. We'll also be having a show in September, at the Cody-Pettit Gallery, 527 4th St. in Eureka, including work by Joan Dunning, Becky Evans, Judy Evenson, Micki Flatmo, Carrie Grant, Terry Oats, Kathy O'Leary, Alicia Tredway and Linda Mitchell, as well as a piece by our fallen friend, Ingrid Nickelsen.

Got a local exhibit or art event that might make a good story? Send your art news to or write in care of the North Coast Journal, 145 South G Street, Suite A, Arcata, CA. 95521.


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