By Virginia Campbell; Photos by Mark Gardner
In the uppermost northwest corner of the United States, in the middle of Puget Sound above Seattle, WA, the San Juan Islands lie in deep blue and emerald green beauty that makes them one of those treasured places people fantasize about escaping to. If only they had a little cottage on a ledge here, with pines and twisting, orange-barked madronas, they’d trade the paychecks of the big city for the chance to gaze out across the water and sight the scythe-like fins of the sound’s resident orcas for the rest of their days.
The natural tranquility of the San Juan Islands provokes such dreams, which is why the islands are particularly beloved by artists and writers, as well as by day-trippers who settle for brief visits to paradise, and by wealthy second-homeowners who steal as much time as they can here.
Sculptor Kay Kammerzell, the guiding spirit and brain trust behind the Westcott Bay Sculpture Park—which occupies almost 20 prime acres in Roche Harbor on San Juan Island—was just such a dreamer. But she had a vision so specific and persistent, a tenacity so immune to discouragement, that she made her dreams into reality by creating a most unusual destination.
The Westcott Bay Sculpture Park, which encompasses minimally altered field, forest, pond, and waterfront connected by casual paths, is the evocative, unmanicured setting for over 100 sculptures that sojourn in Eden for one or two years. This unique outdoor gallery, where sculptures enhance and are enhanced by their surroundings before going back to their creators or off to new owners, is supported by the nonprofit Westcott Bay Institute for Art & Nature, of which Kammerzell was, until recently, the sole paid employee.
“I had dreamed for seven years about creating a sculpture park on San Juan Island,” says Kammerzell, who earned a bachelor’s degree in sculpture from Western Washington University in 1989. With her own artwork in abeyance, Kammerzell was working as a full-time administrator at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner, WA, when her notion of an island sculpture park graduated from dream to action plan. In a leap of faith, both she and her husband, a nonprofit economic-development program manager, quit their jobs and moved to San Juan Island in 2001.
There, as caretakers for private homeowners they had a base from which to survey every inch of the island, looking for just the right site for the sculpture park. Kammerzell’s criteria were downright unrealistic: Not only did the 20 acres she wanted have to include meadow, forest, pond or stream, and waterfront, she explains, “It also had to be free.” Free. This on an island where even a doublewide trailer on less than an acre can run several hundred thousand dollars.
In Roche Harbor, about 10 miles north of the island’s popular state ferry port, Friday Harbor, Kammerzell found a parcel of land that looked right in every way. At the county assessor’s office she found out who owned it—Roche Harbor Resort, proprietor of a complex of lodgings centering around a quaint harbor village and a picturesque turn-of-the-20th-century hotel. The Roche Harbor marina accommodates yachts that come with their own helicopters, and there’s an airstrip for private planes. In the old days, celebrity yachtsmen like John Wayne favored this spot; today, Hollywood folk and new billionaires make Roche Harbor home away from home. In other words, the owners of Roche Harbor Resort were no pushovers. They had their own ideas about what to do with 20 prime acres.
But some combination of Kammerzell’s passion for her project, knowledge of nonprofit operations, familiarity with the sculpture world, and belief that a sculpture park could become an asset that would draw guests to the resort won over the developers. The resort agreed to a long-term land loan accompanied by assurances to the county that the area would permanently remain open space used as a learning center.
With the impossible part of the project now accomplished, Kammerzell set to work on the merely difficult: How do you get first-rate sculptors to lend you appropriate pieces for extended periods and actually bring them to you, all without compensation?
“Having been so passionate about sculpture, I knew who the sculptors were,” she explains. “I started calling them up on the phone. It was a matter of personal contact.”
The very first piece Kammerzell acquired was a circular steel shape by sculptor Arnie Garborg. Titled maelstrom, it was perfectly round on the outside of the circle but had swirls on the inside. “It fit with the art-and-nature theme I wanted the park to have,” says Kammerzell. “It was abstract, but it was placed so that it referred to the pond that you could see through it—water that’s smooth but has a little movement even on a still day.”
maelstrom exemplified the kind of sculpture that Kammerzell envisioned for the park. “I don’t lean toward any particular style of sculpture,” she says. “I like a lot of different things, in terms of material and whether it is abstract, conceptual, or realistic. We try to select work that fits with the natural setting, and beyond that, it has to be suitable for families, it has to be safe—no sharp or dangerous edges—and it has to hold up in the weather.” That last item is no small matter—the island gets hit by brutal winds as well as occasional snow in winter.
On the strength of personal persuasion, Kammerzell got a remarkable 40 pieces of sculpture into the park the first year. The second year there were 80. The third year, 105—from California, Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Oregon, and British Columbia as well as Washington. These days she doesn’t call sculptors anymore—they send her unsolicited slides of their work in the hope of being selected. And though she’d dearly love to have a sculpture superstar like Deborah Butterfield lend a piece for a while, the artists who currently participate are solid names like Gerard Tsutakawa, Georgia Gerber, Robert Maki, Steve Jensen, and Julie Speidel. There’s now an open-air gateway structure at the park’s entrance—donated by a local timber-frame company—and the park has matured into a welcoming environment for an orchestrated experience of art interacting with nature no matter which way you turn.
The great American poet Wallace Stevens declared that imagination is man’s triumph over nature, but at the Westcott Bay Sculpture Park the polarization in that truth is softened, and the further truth that imagination is man’s rapprochement with nature is asserted. The park’s lyrical abstract pieces tend to embody geometries that are implied in nature—the rise of hills, the arc of rainbows. Among the more naturalistic forms, Georgia Gerber’s bronze animals—a fox whose curled, calm body rises to an upright gaze of permanent vigilance, a group of seals whose intertwining, reflective curves suggest an interdependent conviviality that the human eye envies—make observations about nature by heightening realistic features into surreal beauty.
Kammerzell has exercised an astute eye not only in choosing the sculptures for the park, but in placing them. Sculptor Phillip Levine’s queen, for example, a copper figure with a slightly comic grace, is situated so that the slight tilt of her head mimics the slant of the tops of pines leaning in the distance behind her.
According to Kammerzell, one of the park’s most popular sculptures is David Nechak’s untitled conceptual piece consisting of an easel with a canvas-shaped mirror on it that turns the pieces of landscape it captures into instant, shifting “paintings.” People love to take pictures of this piece with themselves in the mirror, she says. “And they like to just look at themselves in this mirror with nature all around them. Most of us are used to seeing ourselves only in bathroom mirrors.” Thanks to one of the park’s generous patrons, Nechak’s piece has become a permanent installation.
Speaking of gifts, the very first donation Kammerzell’s sculpture park received was a weedeater that came from an equipment-rental company on the island. She used it to cut trails. Now there are a few patrons, but the majority of funding comes from money placed in donation boxes by happy visitors who come to San Juan Island via ferry or by private boat or plane. In its first year, the park drew over 10,000 visitors, and last year the count was closer to 50,000. Roche Harbor Resort is looking savvy for the deal it made with Kammerzell, since the park is actually an asset to the resort lodgings now, as well as a draw for people who end up visiting the old hotel or other accommodations on the island.
The same optimistic perseverance that got Westcott Bay Sculpture Park on the ground also worked for Kammerzell and her family’s personal residence. Without a Seattle high-tech fortune to bankroll their dream house, she and her husband started out by buying the single cheapest acre on the market. This being San Juan Island, the acre had serious virtues—easy access to four different beaches and a nice wooded vista. But after talking with contractors and wracking their brains, the couple could see no way to afford the high cost of constructing even the most modest house. Then, out of the blue, a contractor they’d talked with said there was a small house with terrific architectural character located on a nearby island, and if they were willing to have it moved, it was theirs for a song. They bought the house and then had it sawed in half and floated over to San Juan Island, all for a mere $50,000. Had Kammerzell not already convinced developers to give her the long-term use of some 20 acres of prime real estate for an aesthetic endeavor in which she had no proven track record, she might have been more surprised at how well this personal venture worked out.
With donated administrative offices now located in Friday Harbor, Kammerzell is positioned to build exponentially on a remarkably successful first five years. Her hope is to have a building constructed at the park before long, and her visible progress is likely to make grants forthcoming. But the purpose of the park has always been to provide a place where the rural culture of the San Juan Islands could be appreciated in a new way—“I wanted it to be a meditative place,” says Kammerzell—and in that respect, it’s already a done deal.
In a time when the preservation of untouched wilderness holds a place of almost religious importance in the public imagination, the idea of a slightly touched natural setting that invites contemplation of the dynamic relationship between nature and humanity certainly seems fresh and worthy.
Featured in July 2006