In mid-September of 2002, tens of thousands of fish (mostly Chinook salmon) turned up dead on the Klamath River. Attributed in part to low water flow from the Iron Gate Dam, the devastating fish kill left an enormous impact on the local community, artist Becky Evans included. A self-described "land-based artist," Evans tends to let the environment act as the muse behind her artwork. And this was more than a normal muse. From the tragedy of the event rose an impressive installation combining the work of professional artists, schoolchildren and volunteers. She called it "30,000 Salmon," and to celebrate the historic removal of four dams from the Klamath River, it is now on display for all to see at the Morris Graves Museum in Eureka.
Evans' friend John Stokes helped bring the tragic event to her doorstep and lay the foundational idea for her artwork. "I was up on the Klamath fishing with Larry [Simpson] and Fred [Neighbor]," said Stokes. "We got there, and all these fish were floating down the river. As we got closer, we saw even more of them. It was crazy. Shocking. Fish were just stacking up against the bank. We went to Blue Creek and Larry caught like a 30-pound Chinook on his trout rod. The fish was so sick it didn't fight at all."
Stokes' photograph of the fish his friend caught created a lasting impression on Evans. She saw the story as it broke in the Time-Standard, she studied Stokes' photo, and she wanted to see it for herself. "The template for this (piece) was based on the photo John took of the huge salmon. It had the toe of John's boot in it." Evans said. She went to explore the Klamath River with her husband and dog, feeling like she had to experience it firsthand. Dressed in a respirator, disposable gloves and suit, Evans collected rotten fish carcasses that lay in and around the river. Bringing the stinking fish home, she buried them and dug them up a year later to create a memorial piece titled "One Year Later" that is currently on display at the Ink People's Brenda Tuxford Gallery. Yet, that wasn't enough.
"The idea of this piece came about with John's photograph and what I saw. I thought to myself, 'How do we experience a statistic?' We are getting statistics all the time and you can become numb to it. But this is in our backyard," said Evans. "I wanted to create something visible, tangible."
Evans knew she wanted the title "30,000 Salmon" because that was the fish kill count in the early headlines (later numbers hovered as high as 80,000 fish). She mulled over stuffing $30,000 into a glass jar for display but did not have that kind of money to work with. Eventually, she settled on the idea of creating a community project involving the stewards that will inherit what is left behind, our children. Evans spoke with an art teacher friend who was already making koi kites with her students and the idea began to take shape. She then spoke with other teachers and the piece was built from there.
What came from Evans' vision is a remarkable, moving fish created out of thousands of different works of art. Pieces hang above a floor interpretation of the cast shadow memorializing all the fish that died. Both the hanging and floor pieces are several layers deep, with ceramics, tiles, poems, drawings and the like filling in all the spaces. The goal was to have more than 30,000 works of art displayed together to represent the initial dead fish counted and she did just that.
"It's everything from preschool to middle school, high school and beyond. A college English class did a writing project of a prompt, then I showed them how to fold it into origami fish. You can see all ways teachers incorporated this vision into art, science, or whatever curriculum seemed to work for them," said Evans. "The colored fish aspect represents the hopes of all these people for the future. We have volunteers, professional artists and mostly you will see children's work."
The finished "30,000 Salmon" made its debut in 2004 at the since defunct First Street Art Gallery. When it was first shown, there was thought it could travel to Washington, DC..; however, lack of resources eventually left it here. Because of that possibility, though, students carefully boxed all the components up when the exhibit was over. The boxes sat in Evans' care for nearly 20 years. When it was announced in March that dam removal would begin on the Klamath — the largest dam removal project in U.S. history — talk of reviving the exhibit began in earnest.
The collaborative piece is installed in the MGM's rotunda, along with photos of the dam removal in progress. A small chunk of the dam is on display as well. "It's so exciting to me that some of these child artists [who contributed] are now grown and they are seeing the dams coming down! My big hope is that some of the students who worked on this will come and see it, and that when the project comes down the artists will take their projects with them," says Evans. "It's not going to be displayed again. Because we have succeeded, we are succeeding. These artists have seen a big, amazing change in their lifetime."
Becky Evans' "30,000 Salmon" will be on display at the Morris Graves Museum of Art through Sept. 17. Visit humboldtarts.org for information about Arts Alive and other special events related to the exhibition.
Tamar Burris (she/her) is a freelance education writer and relationship coach. Her book for children of divorce A New Special Friend is available through her website tamarburris.com.