“I missed the water,” said Eric Wiegardt when asked by Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum director Betsy Millard why he came back to the Peninsula after studying art in Chicago. “And this is my home. But, really, I missed the water.”
He was stating the obvious. Betsy laughed and gestured around the room; there were thirty of us listening to Eric’s talk, and we were surrounded by his many water-themed watercolors on the museum walls: the Ilwaco shipyard, views of the bay, Port of Peninsula, wetlands, tide pools, various vessel hulls, and working waterfront scenes.
There were also images that captured slices of everyday domestic life: Eric’s wife Ann with their children; autumn foliage; camellias falling into a bait bucket; Dobby walking out to the duck blind; gathering seaweed; and a favorite old red truck of his (a 1969 Toyota Land Cruiser).
Before I go further, though, let me just say this — the show is magnificent! Eric’s watercolors are stunning and provide the “fluidity” part of the show’s title, while David Campiche’s clay containers deliver the equally arresting “form.” I most loved David’s large scale constructions and the smaller — in the most mundane terms, we could call them “teapot-like” — iconic vessels honoring Peninsula wildlife: bears, eagles, hawks, salmon, in natural colors. Also displayed are many of David’s fine poems. (Note that David will talk about his work on Sept. 20 at 2 p.m. Don’t miss out — Thursdays at the museum are free.)
Bottom line — the show is a rich and profound artistic “conversation.”
An artist’s life
We all know that our Peninsula is a haven for artists of all varieties — poets, writers, ceramicists, weavers, quilters, chefs, gardeners, musicians, visual artists. How does this happen? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? — the artist or the environment that nurtures and attracts art? It might be a magical combination of both. Our landscape is majestic and seasonally changeable, and it also provides plenty of time and space for introspection.
For Eric the story begins this way. “My wife was an integral part in all this. In 1981, I was in the corporate world and I said, ‘I don’t think I like this.’ I heard about an art school in Chicago and we went up and looked at it and I said I would really like to do this. And Ann said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ I don’t know what she was thinking, and I don’t know what I was thinking, but it was a wonderful art school and I was so thankful for the training that I got. It has given me the foundation I needed to explore and discover my art.”
“You know, the artist life is really unusual,” he continues. “It’s a lot of solitary time, a lot of thinking time, a lot of time when you’re wondering if you’re heading in the right direction. Each time you try to expand, to do something a little bit better, there’s a gap there, there’s a plateau you reach. There were many times when I wondered ‘Where am I at? What’s going on?’ There have been times when I thought, ‘I’m not cut out for this.’ But then I also opened and picked oysters and I said, ‘Nooo, I don’t want to do that!’ Then in a couple days things came back together and I was usually up and going again.”
As Eric admitted, “Talking about paintings is like talking about your kids.” The audience moved around the room as Eric gave us a backstage look at and more intimate details about various paintings. One of my favorites is ‘Salmon Egg Can and Pails’ (1989) with a backdrop of camellias. As Eric noted, “The galvanized pails were used for transporting salmon eggs from Ilwaco up to the Wiegardt Brothers cannery in Nahcotta. I liked the composition, but I left for vacation and when I returned to paint it the camellias had dropped off the bush. I taped a few back on to recreate the scene.” (All artists are familiar with and adept at using poetic license.)
Eric’s career took many turns, but the bet he and Ann made on the shape of their lives paid off in so many ways. Somehow, they managed to raise five children on an artist’s wages. And as Eric’s skill increased so did his reputation, perhaps culminating in the top prize from the American Watercolor Society (AWS), the Gold Medal of Honor for “The Duck Hunter,” an image of his dad Dobby walking out on the tide lands on a misty Peninsula morning.
As Eric reminded us, “That painting had been down at the Shelburne for about a year and I’d forgotten all about it, forgot it was even there. Sometimes when you’re working on a painting, you think you nailed it and you come back the next day and say, ‘Oh my gosh, what a mess.’ Other times you say, ‘Holy cow! I really did nail it.’ Well, I looked at the painting again and thought it was a strong painting.” So Eric entered it in the AWS competition in 2012.
One of the AWS judges said of his piece, “There is not one stroke out of place.”
Our amazing museum
As well as congratulating both Eric and David, I must mention how extremely lucky we are to have a world-class curator in Betsy Millard. She comments on how the show came about, “I’d been talking with David Campiche about doing an exhibition for sometime but trying to find the right way to make it connect to our mission. Meanwhile, David told me about doing a little show with Eric at a gallery up north — Whidbey Island, I think. David’s work is so different from Eric’s, but it is also informed by the landscape, colors, and forms of our local environment — they share an innate understanding of ‘place.’”
“There is a ‘conversation’ that takes place when the two get together, both as guys who grew up here and also between the works. The show has some very special family pieces that aren’t usually seen. I had a lot of fun getting back to own my roots, having spent 20 years working in art museums, as I curated the show.”
Both Eric and David left here to study elsewhere — David spent time in Paris, France via Lewis and Clark College; and Eric studied at the American Academy of Art in Chicago. But, to our great good fortune, both came back home.
So in “Form and Fluidity,” which runs through Oct. 6, we are triply blessed — by two world-class artists and a curator with a keen eye and the sensibility to understand how unique our Peninsula is. Not only are Eric and David products of our amazing landscape, culture, and history, they capture and reflect back to us what is special about our place. Don’t miss this show.