We’ve all got them — those seashells, heirloom thimbles or old photos that hold so many stories for ourselves but aren’t terribly interesting for anyone else. They sit on shelves or in boxes, and we occasionally dig them out.
But for the Foss Waterway Seaport, those curiosities take up an entire 45,000 square feet of historic waterfront warehouse — items like giant rusty chains, historic canoes, scuba gear and railway carts. How to tell these stories and engage curiosity without visual overload?
The answer, as it often can be, is art. Lisa Kinoshita of boutique Tacoma gallery Moss+Mineral took up the challenge of curating the annual art show for last weekend’s Maritime Fest, inviting 19 of the Northwest’s best artists and injecting her own quirky aesthetic of natural wonders to produce a show — “Wunderkammer” — that blurs the boundaries between art and history. Add in a majestic recycled plastic whale and some highly interactive permanent exhibits, and you have a whole seaport full of wonders.
Inspired by the eclectic collections of Renaissance royalty gathered by famous explorers from far-flung places, Kinoshita has called her show “Wunderkammer”: a “cabinet of curiosities” upsized into a room. That would be the front space of the seaport, where the show’s sculptures rest on antique shipping trolleys in between history exhibits and permanent art like the enormous suspended jellyfish or Bret Lyon’s “Lot 411,” reclaimed dock timbers polished to a sheen and rising from inside to out as if through water instead of a wall. On a trio of rough wood pedestals, Steve Jensen puts his Norwegian carving skills into three baby canoes — one of rope-bound driftwood filled like a coffin with glass and resin, one of amber resin cradling a skull and anchor chain, and a third with an Easter Island head and tiny faces in its stomach, all mysterious testimonies to those who sail and make discoveries.
In another case a letterpress flag book by Jessica Spring riffs on vintage cigarette card ship illustrations and nautical metaphors, bound in twine and covered in indigo sailcloth with portholes. Bookending it are two bird nests: one real, made from reeds by marsh birds and part of the seaport’s collection; the other by Holly Senn made of shredded books.
Natural history continues with Kyle Dillehay’s “Tree of Life,” a chest-high cedar stump with evolutionary life rings burned into it from cyanobacteriam to vertebrates — where a tiny plaster hand emerges like a swimmer calling for help. Nearby is Alice Di Certo’s freak-show two-faced head that eats broken glass with one cast-iron mouth and spews out perfectly formed goblets from the other.
Mishele Dupree-Winter and Alexander Keyes have both made literal curiosity cabinets of reclaimed wood and metal. But while Keyes’ expresses an OCD love of custom shelving and the uninspiring contemporary detritus that goes in it (books, papers, TV screens), Dupree-Winter combines rusty cogwheels, two-headed dolls, animal specimens, bloodied roses and a taxidermied rabbit head to express both a much darker psyche and a memento mori that Renaissance patrons would have found entirely recognizable.
First prize for blurring the lines between real and imagined goes to Marc Dombrosky and Shannon Eakins, a couple formerly of Tacoma who have created a bizarrely believable object and story. Under a Victorian bell jar sits an ear, carved from an “oaken oar” by a long-lost Tacoma fisherman, mounted on a leather strap and resting on a odd bone-like protrusion. With its earthy brown patina and rugged weirdness it seems like just another seaport artifact, until you read the fascinatingly invented text about how the fisherman carved it to replace one he’d lost in a storm.
Such artistic curiosities are embedded everywhere in the front room, commenting on the realness of the actual historical objects (some of which are just as strange). A lamp with a deer spine by Rob Zinkevich rests meekly between burlap coffee sacks and a rope hammock in the longshoreman’s exhibit; near the historic scuba devices are cases containing “specimens” intricately created by Renee Adams and Justin Gibbens. Her jellyfish sewn with rawhide, dangling plastic baubles, and her odd spiny plastic sea creatures fit perfectly with his stunningly lifelike botanical watercolors, which in turn come to sculptural life in a pink plastic sea arthropod. Next to them, Lisa Kinoshita’s vintage microscope, sprouting an air plant, comments dryly on scientific discovery, and the sea urchin bearing deer antlers speaks to future Darwinian mutation.
Ushering in the next warehouse space is a gorgeous giant necklace by Sabrina Knowles and Jenny Pohlman, the iron chain bearing big wooden beads and opaque glass vessels filled with African spices like a cabin decoration for a mythical sea captain.
And that’s only half of what’s there: “Wunderkammer” is that delightful kind of art exhibit that you want to go back to over and over to explore.
But it’s not just “Wunderkammer” that has transformed the seaport into a chamber of wonders. Hard, creative work by education director Jan Adams and the rest of the staff and volunteers has made fascinating, interactive explorations out of dry, incomprehensible collections. Carrie Ziegler’s majestic whale, a community-built sculpture made in Olympia with a powerful message about marine plastic trash. Built on a frame of recycled plastic cups and pipes, the whale’s skin is a tapestry of whorls made from braided supermarket bags — beautiful but deadly in their ability to choke and starve such creatures. Actual supermarket carts, stuffed with plastic, paper and reusable bags, along with printed text about the consequences of each, bring the message to eye-level. (The whale travels around the Northwest but will stay in Tacoma through summer.)
In another corner, Ziegler works with Tacoma schoolkids to explore the same marine debris issue. Students from Sherman Elementary have created big interactive sculptures like a 10-foot spider web made from woven bags that incorporate research done on local sea creatures and how they suffer from plastic trash. Other touchable exhibits — a rope knot station, a block-and-tackle experiment, a K’nex bridge-building challenge — both engage and teach. And backing some of the historic corners (boats, railways) is Rachel Dotson’s expansive historic mural, much more visually powerful inside than it used to be on the street exterior.
While the Maritime Fest has come and gone, the visual and imaginative feast continues all summer at the Foss Waterway Seaport.
IF YOU GO
What: “Wunderkammer: Artifacts, False Memories and Projections” and other maritime exhibits.
Where: Foss Waterway Seaport, 705 Dock St., Tacoma.
When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, noon-4 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 30.
Admission: $8 adults; $5 children, seniors and students; free for 4 and younger.