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Artist's work puts shipwreck in perspective.

Byline: Bob Welch / The Register-Guard

COOS BAY - As I watch the winter surf pound the remains of the New Carissa, the irony abounds: In 1999, after the 639-foot ship grounded itself on the North Spit, the whole world seemed attuned to the wreck.

Now, quite possibly, I'm the only human being on Planet Earth looking at it. Ah, but as the five-year anniversary of the shipwreck nears (Feb. 4), I'd earlier seen something that suggests the New Carissa is permanently embedded in our lore, if not quite with the whimsy of Florence's exploding whale, then with the staying power of a bullhead.

Artist Karin Richardson, a North Bend artist who's studied at the Pilchuck Glass School north of Seattle, calls it "The Remains to be Seen." It's at the Coos Art Museum. And it's an intriguing exhibit of "installation art" culled nearly entirely from the scrap-iron remains of Oregon's infamous "Thing That Wouldn't Leave."

"Remains," which ends Saturday, is like no art exhibit I've ever seen, leaving some viewers dabbing tears and others scratching their heads. It's something of a Carissa cadaver, including 185 rusted strips of steel that once formed the ship's skin.

In some cases, Richardson's only influence has been the shapes in which she chose to cut the steel with a blow torch. In others, she has blow-torched well-aligned holes in pieces to represent the number of birds killed by oil from the vessel. (For example, she burned 82 holes in one piece to represent the 82 Western grebes that bird experts say died following the grounding; 262 for the marbled murrelet.)

She made 2,358 bird forms - they look like pop bottles shingled with wood shavings - to represent the birds killed. "As I focused on the seabirds," she says, "questions would appear with images in visual form, and I couldn't look away. How many? How high? How long?"

My "how" question? How did this project get started in the first place?

It is rooted, she believes, in a childhood spent scavenging south coast beaches for wood shaped by the sea. "I have been fascinated by the natural transformational process," says Richardson, 49.

Of course, there's nothing much more unnatural than a 1,500-ton freighter washing up in your front yard, followed by the maritime version of the Keystone Cops trying to pull the remains to sea. "The most graphic example of `bad to worse' I've ever seen," Richardson says.

Four months after the wreck, while she was poking around for a steel plate to use in some artwork, she met the ship's salvage crew. She started taking pictures, then asking if she could take a few pieces, then taking helicopter rides out to the ship itself.

"It was a ghost town of steel," she says.

In essence, she became a sort of boneyards artist-in-residence. "Just don't get hurt," the crew told her.

Later, the Coos Art Museum approved the idea for an exhibit, which opened Nov. 21. "It's about our need for remembrance," Richardson says. "About connecting and reconnecting."

She hesitates to go much further, believing that each viewer will take from the exhibit something different. To me, it's "beauty and the birds." Some of the steel, having been exposed to wind, water, salt and flames, is oddly alluring. But the ever-present reminders of lost birds bring a somber sense to it all, as if you're in a mausoleum.

A display featuring largely ship iron, some of the hole-peppered pieces looking like giant cheese graters, isn't your typical art exhibit. But given the New Carissa story - an asleep-at-the-wheel captain, the bow winding up at Waldport, then later being sunk only after an all-out assault by the U.S. Navy, and incessant squabbles about who's not responsible - the idea that a shipwreck could find an expression in art seems not only appropriate, but long overdue.

The Coos Art Museum, 235 Anderson St., is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Call (541) 267-3901 or see for more information.
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 20, 2004
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