He Couldn’t Refuse a Deathbed Plea. Now He’s Got 10,000 Pieces of Art.

SEATTLE — Seven words. That’s how it started. “Can you take care of the collection?”

Posted Updated
He Couldn’t Refuse a Deathbed Plea. Now He’s Got 10,000 Pieces of Art.
Kirk Johnson
, New York Times

SEATTLE — Seven words. That’s how it started. “Can you take care of the collection?”

As Arvi Ostrom lay dying more than 20 years ago, he made that request of his grandson Ken Carlson.

Carlson immediately said yes, of course, even though he really had no idea of the magnitude of the commitment. Ostrom had been a mostly self-taught artist, and his grandson figured that “the collection” might add up to a hundred or so sketches and paintings. In any case, he said, you don’t deny the last wishes of a grandfather you love.

But art and family are complicated subjects. And only when they’re combined, and the art — as Carlson found to his shock — comes in giant piles, do you start to understand what kind of burden can unfold from a simple promise.

Over the course of more than 70 years, starting in the 1920s through his final days at age 91, Ostrom produced about 10,000 drawings, paintings and wooden sculptures. Whimsical cartoons of tough guys, clenching cigarettes in steel-trap jaws. Portraits of sad-eyed people who might have been patrons at the Snug Harbor, the bar Ostrom ran in Astoria, Oregon. Haunting images of ghost ships sailing off into the Pacific, laced in shadow and gloom. He let his imagination roam the world as he sketched in the quiet hours beside the cash register or at home.

Leaving the collection to Carlson — no one else in the family wanted it — created its own questions. He looked into publishing a family book about Arvi’s art, or buying back the building that had housed the Snug Harbor to open a cafe, or a little museum, but the plans all foundered. And every year that no answer was found raised Carlson’s worry that the promise had been too much.

Ostrom’s art was simple in its goals, lacking the grander message that art buyers and critics look for. No major museum or local gallery is likely to beckon. Years ago, an appraiser had come to look and figured the collection might be worth $10 a piece as folk art. But selling the work was never part of Carlson’s plan anyway, nor has he ever tried to sell it. This wasn’t high art, but that wasn’t really the point. This was about a family relationship across generations, the weight of old promises that can keep you awake at night and, perhaps most of all, the mystery of a creative impulse quietly, relentlessly sustained.

“I had to honor him and his commitment, that he just kept at it,” said Carlson, who is 59 and a musician, carpenter and music teacher. “Arvi didn’t give up, and I couldn’t either.”

The journey has been long. Over the years, Carlson said he had “freakouts,” when he would look at the art and start to think that there was some sort of message in it — a secret text from grandfather to grandson hidden in the eyes of Ostrom’s portrait subjects or the gnarled hands of the fishermen. There were shadows in the Ostrom household that could make you expect hidden messages. Family members said Ostrom was stoic and taciturn, raised in a corner of the Pacific Northwest near the mouth of the Columbia River where Finnish immigrants came in the 1800s for the fishing. He was scarred, his relatives said, by the sudden and never-explained death of his father, a fisherman and farmer, when Arvi was 5, and by the hard life that came after. Loss always seemed to lurk on the horizon. Ostrom refused to tell his five children — all daughters — that he loved them, for example, the oldest said, because he said he didn’t want them to be too sad when he died.

The Snug Harbor was never a place Ostrom loved, either, despite decades behind the bar, selling sandwiches and coffee to fishermen heading out in the mornings and beer when they came back at night. The bar put food on the table for the big family. His daughters were forbidden to set foot in the place.

A heartbreaking truth about Ostrom and his passion: The pieces of art he felt best about, and proudest of, were ones he hid away. Perhaps, his grandson said, he feared the prospect of rejection or loss. He had tried to sell some work early in life and eventually gave up. In an art correspondence course he took in 1928 from Federal Schools Inc. of Minneapolis, he was given a grade of “fairly good,” according to a letter he kept along with the stacks of work.

So he created a snug harbor of his own, beaming himself out of the world of beer and pickled eggs and cigars by sketching and drawing nonstop, until his death. Carlson, the grandson, lives in a house that he calls an artistic creation too. He sleeps in a loft by the kitchen. His bathroom has no door, and he has for years rented bedrooms upstairs at bargain rates to artists who needed help. Arvi’s art is stored on shelves, in binders, in the basement.

His mother, Lois Carlson, said that Carlson’s devotion to his grandfather has opened eyes in the family to the idea that Ostrom may have bequeathed something greater than they realized at the time.

“We didn’t think there was anything special about it growing up, it was just what Dad did,” Lois Carlson, 83, said.

Last month, the biggest show ever of Arvi Ostrom’s art, more than 150 portraits, cartoons and sketches, went up on the walls of the Redwing Cafe, a coffeehouse and vegetarian restaurant a few blocks from Ken Carlson’s house here. A photograph taken in the 1930s of Ostrom, standing behind the bar at the Snug Harbor in a white shirt and bow tie, greets visitors as they walk in.

“It’s so weird to see it in another place,” Carlson said, standing on a ladder as he helped mount the show. He hung an unframed portrait, protected in its plastic sleeve, onto the wall. The art had left the basement.

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.