I shared wine with sculptor, architect and draftsman Hans Nelson whose work is appearing in the show Fishtown and the Skagit River, currently showing in La Conner, WA at the Museum of Northwest Art. Hans lived in Fishtown from 1969 until 1973.
Gurldoggie: What was Fishtown?
Hans Nelson: Fishtown was a loose collection of like minded souls who lived in abandoned fishing shacks until the mid-80’s. There were poets and sculptors and some truly great painters working mostly in ink and water based medium. They were very influenced by Chinese and Japanese art, and were studying Chinese poetry, philosophy, Buddhism. People were meditating. The setting looked like a Chinese landscape and it inspired people.
Where was it?
On the Skagit River. Fishtown was a nexus of shacks on the river, with boardwalks between them, near the mouth of the Skagit. It was in the tidal zone, so at night the tide would come up.
To get into town you could walk four miles across the Skagit flats into LaConner, or take a little motor boat into town. Laconner was a dusty little fishing village. It felt abandoned and forlorn. None of the chi-chi bullshit you see now.
What was it that brought people there?
It was pretty easy to be autonomous there. A guy just could come up and set up a shack and get to work. There was no power, no phones, nothing. It was primitive man. And deep winter. We passed some deep winter up there.
I got there in 1969. More people were just starting to show up at that time. There were even some children soon after I got there. I dropped out of high school and finished my education at Fishtown, drawing and painting. I don’t even think I made a living then – I did some odd jobs and every so often my Dad would send a small check in the mail, but really I lived on nothing, barely kept body and soul together.
Who were some of the artists who came out of that time?
Charlie Krafft, you know his whole crazy, charming, bigoted thing. He was really resourceful and productive.
Paul Hanson was an amazingly gifted painter who was probably the most into Chinese culture. He learned perfect Chinese, and now he lives in China and actually teaches Chinese at Peking University. He was one of these funny looking guys who was always getting girls. That’s what keeps him in China I think, women respect old scholars there.
Robert Sund was a bard who literally lived on nothing and went around “singing light” like Dylan Thomas said. He was a true poet. He had a little shack that we called “shit creek,” but really it was a beautiful little place with homes for swallows. He called the area “Ish River Country.”
Arthur Jorgensen, a local guy, a brawler and a bohemian and a drinker and a mad dog sculptor and painter. He put so much energy into his work it was nuts. You knew at some point in the night he was going to start throwing furniture around, you had to either get the booze or the furniture away from him. He died a few years ago sailing, which was always the thing he loved the best.
There really was this constant creative thing going on. Everyone was doing something.
So what happened?
By the 1980’s the family who owned the land that Fishtown was on decided that they wanted to log the entire property and chase the artists off. People weren’t exactly squatting at that time, they were paying rent of $10 a month, so they felt they had some rights.
We staged the biggest protest we could, and called Earth First and hired a totally rinky-dink lawyer whose car would never start and we had to push it. We lost that fight of course and they “won” the right to destroy this old Indian land that was in a pristine state. And they came and destroyed all the cabins and chased everyone out. There was nothing left.
Nothing at all?
There’s ONE holdout artist who’s still living there, Maggie Wilder. She’s an amazing painter too, and really private. They didn’t destroy her cabin for one reason or another, so she stayed on. She has this fear that Fishtown is going to be “discovered” one day and popularized, but it’s gone man.
The show Artists, Poets Scholars: Fishtown and the Skagit River is up now at the Museum of Northwest Art at 121 South First Street in La Conner, WA. The show runs until October 3.