Paul Rickard's early morning painting expeditions favor the intrepid. "I like to go out painting before dawn," he told me. "I end up scrambling down past the No Trespassing signs. A lot of times I have to go over and under fences, across railroad trestles ... through mudflats, river channels. I've encountered quicksand and other unexpected hazards." Rickard often paints from spots that would be difficult or impossible for anyone but a committed hiker with serious all-terrain capacity to access.
He's been working for more than a year on a project that uses plein air watercolor painting to document the margins of Humboldt Bay. The scores of landscape studies generated through this practice constitute a multifaceted portrait. They document the changing beauty of the bay and the sky above. Some of them also document the record levels of homelessness that Humboldt County recorded in 2016, when at one point more than 1,000 men, women and children were estimated to be illegally camping in these marshy borderlands.
More than 50 of these watercolors are on display through Jan. 15 in the Morris Graves Museum of Art's Thornton Gallery. The exhibition is titled Humboldt Bay: A Watercolorist's Perspective from the Other Side of the Tracks.
Viewers will recognize many of the beauty spots Rickard paints —Trinidad Head and the Arcata Marsh, for instance — but also the Pacific Diamond lumber mill and the view of the Woodley Island Marina from Eureka's Wharfinger Building. The ragged men and women who appear in some pictures with their tents and shopping carts are going to look familiar to residents as well, although the sight of them is likely to elicit less enthusiasm.
If shopping carts and homeless encampments line the water's edge, Rickard records their presence with the same matter-of-factness that he accords to the yellow marsh grasses or the cloudy sky. Some painters would have edited out such disconcerting aspects of the view, erasing them from the record. But Rickard made a conscious decision at some point to recognize the people who live in the marsh. He also decided he would not seek them out or ask them to pose. "That wouldn't have felt right," he said.
Painting the bay began as a straightforward landscape project but over time it evolved into something more for Rickard: "After I had been painting the bay for a while, the sheer number of encounters I had come to anticipate having with un-housed people led me to adapt my approach." Rickard started bringing coffee and doughnuts on his painting excursions, "just trying to share what I had. Sometimes, if the people I met seemed willing, I engaged them in conversation. I realized that what I was seeing in Palco Marsh and in the Devil's Playground resonated: This is something that is really happening in our society. Something is going on here.
"It was very uncomfortable to witness what I did," the artist added. "It was mind-boggling. How did this happen? What can we do about it?" The episodic portrait reminds us that there is no natural world untouched by human presence; the bay's muddy margins are not only a place of refuge for animals and birds but also a last redoubt for destitute people with nowhere else to go.
Rickard, who has resided in Humboldt since 1978, has been painting full time for four and a half years. He has had no formal training. However, by his own account, he has been a "compulsive sketcher" all his life, drawn to record the sights around him. After retiring from his job in the school system, he decided to act on those inclinations. "I started in the most local and direct way possible: I bought a watercolor box and some paper at Arcata Art Supply."
Rickard regularly paints between 50 and 60 hours a week — a level of productivity and commitment most students can only aspire to. "I'm kind of obsessed," he said with a laugh. He credits his rapid progress to a group of artist mentors who are equally committed to painting the local scene, especially Jim McVicker, Steve Porter, Jody Bryant and other members of the Humboldt Open Air Watercolorist Society. Rickard said, "Getting involved with members of the local arts community has been one of the best parts of making art." Rickard and his wife Nancy play a role in that community by organizing a painting club that meets each Sunday to paint and sketch outdoors at a different location, rain or shine. Recently visited sites include Hookton Slough, the Wharfinger Building in Eureka, the Ma-l'el Dunes, the Arcata Marsh and the Lost Coast Headlands.
Rickard has customized his gear to meet personal specifications over time. He doesn't use an easel because access and speed are paramount concerns. "I use a camp chair and I duct-taped a circular plastic container onto it to hold my brushes," he said, chuckling. "I think it was a total investment of $25." The chair serves a dual function. When it is folded up, Rickard can use it like a cane. Or, he can strap it onto his back so that he can be minimally unencumbered when negotiating the terrain around the bay perimeter, "which is like an obstacle course in its own right."
Rickard does not downplay the bay's beauty, nor does he minimize its squalor. A rainbow blooming unexpectedly through mist over the bay makes an appearance in one of the small paintings here. Another shows a Palco Marsh homeless man flying the American flag outside his ramshackle shanty. The tableau that results seems like both commemoration and repudiation of the American dream.
"We witness splendor and squalor along the waterfront," Rickard writes. "For those of us who sleep in warm beds and know not hunger, the conditions of the homeless can only be described as hard, harsh, and humbling ... We as a community must do better for the least among us." He is donating 30 percent of profits from exhibition sales to the Betty Chinn Foundation for the homeless.