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An artist from another time
On a bright July day, as I pulled up in front of Michael Spakowsky’s place, he stepped outside his clapboard house and gave a friendly wave. The tableau — a big man standing alone in front of a small white house in a clearing carved out of the woods — was reminiscent of an Andrew Wyeth painting.
The 63-year-old artist, revered locally for his maritime and landscape watercolor paintings, had dressed up for the occasion. He wore black jeans with a button-down shirt neatly tucked in and his hair slicked back. Sharp, button eyes peered out behind long, thin eyelids that seemed carved out of wood.
And then there was the smile — an impish grin that fully welcomed me into his world.
To visit him is to take a trip back in time, to see Vashon through the eyes of an artist who has lived here almost all his life.
Inside his house — a place he built himself, using mostly salvaged materials, on a two-and-a-half-acre plot near Paradise Ridge that he bought for $7,500 in 1989 — there were stacks of old country music LPs sitting patiently in front of an old turntable and a 1970s-era tape deck. Photos of his grown daughters and grandchildren, which he proudly pointed to, share a spot atop the piano with a framed photo of Merle Haggard signed by the country legend to “Vashon Mike.”
A couple of guitars were lined up against one wall, close to a small couch. Looking past the room, I could see a small, austere art studio in the back of the house.
The vibe was cozy and a bit well-worn. Then it hit me. “I don’t see a computer in here,” I said.
“Nope, no computer,” Spakowsky said. “No answering machine or cell phone. I never had a credit card or a debit card, I never wrote a check.”
Even Spakowsky’s car — a 1967 turquoise and white Galaxy 500 that he has owned for 30 years — speaks of another era.
And that’s all OK with Spakowsky, who seems content to live amid the trappings of a time gone by.
“I choose to be this way, obviously,” he said. “I can still sell my paintings the old-fashioned way.”
Indeed, by Spakowsky’s reasoning, he’s made two paintings a week for 40 years now — more than 4,000 in all, almost all of which he has sold. A thousand of the paintings, he estimates, hang on Vashon walls — making him by far the most collected painter on the Island.
Not that he thinks that is all good.
“I’m not proud of it, really,” he said. “It’s almost too prolific.”
Part of Spakowsky’s appeal, no doubt, are his prices: Many of his works go for between $200 and $600. He wants to be able to sell them to working-class people, he said.
His art brings in enough money, he said, to “keep me in groceries” and pay for his single biggest expense — his property taxes, which have skyrocketed over the years. Spakowsky lives alone, after a long-ago breakup with his wife. His three daughters, now grown, stayed with him on holidays and during the summers when they were young, he said.
He has had plenty of company at his home, though — guests in a small outbuilding next to his house that he calls his bunkhouse. Big enough for just a bed and a few shelves to store gear, the bunkhouse has provided a way station for friends from Vashon and other faraway places.
“People fall in love with Vashon and just stay here for a couple of months,” he said. “I never charge them anything.”
Over the years, he’s exhibited at many venues, including the Astoria Maritime Museum and the Kirsten Gallery in Seattle, and in special shows organized at the Vashon boatyard of his lifelong friend, Danny Cadman. Seven times, his paintings have been accepted into Foss Maritime’s prestigious calendar competition. Currently, his paintings line a wall at Duet, a local shop and gallery.
Along the way, he’s always found time for another art form altogether. In the 1970s, he and his brother Jimmy formed a rock band, The Doily Brothers. One of the band’s high-water marks came in 1972, when they opened for Alice Cooper at the Paramount in Seattle. Now, many years later, the Doily Brothers still draw a dancing crowd for their occasional shows at Sporty’s, a local watering hole.
Spakowsky said he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t an artist.
“I was held back in the second grade for drawing in class,” he said. “My first second-grade teacher took me by the ear and made me stand in the corner for drawing in class. My second second-grade teacher gave me a set of paints.”
Cadman, reached at home, put it simply. “He’s an example of God-given talent. He has it in his music too — when he gets on stage he has an aura about him. There are so many people who are amazed by his ability.”
Still, Cadman suggested that Spakowsky’s laid-back attitude is part of the reason he hasn’t become even better known.
“I remember once he was in a Barnworks show, and you had to sign up to sit a while in the gallery,” Cadman said. “Michael had signed up for 10 a.m. and I said, ‘You’re not going to get up then.’ He said, ‘Aw, I’m not going to sit there, they’ll figure something out.’ Sure enough, I came back the next day at 10 o’clock, and Al Bradley, who had garden art in the show, was sitting there. He said, ‘It’s a damn shame Michael’s not here, because a lot of people want to shake his hand.’”
Spakowksy moved to Vashon with his family in 1954 and grew up mostly in Burton, close to the water. His mother, Lucille Spakowsky, now in her 80s, still lives on Vashon and volunteers at Granny’s Attic.
Spakowsky recounted tales of growing up on Vashon during a time when children were given free-range to explore. He said that when he and Cadman were 7 or 8 years old, they turned in enough pop bottles to buy and fix up their own sailboat.
“I’ve been boating ever since,” he said, adding that he has supplemented his income from painting over the years with commercial fishing jobs, working on tugs and fishing boats and toiling as a handyman.
He taught himself how to paint, influenced by other Vashon artists, including Norman Edson — a famous Northwest photographer he remembers saying hello to as a young man in Burton. He also has fond memories of Jack Tabor, who painted the murals at Vashon Theatre, and Jakk Corsaw, a legendary Island character best known for winning a design competition for Seattle’s famed globe atop the Seattle PI building.
Spakowsky only spent a short time inside the walls of an art school.
“I went to Cornish (College of the Arts) for a quarter but I never learned anything there,” he said.
Instead, he kept returning to the works of his favorite artist, Winslow Homer.
“He was the biggest inspiration to me in my life,” he said, reaching onto a shelf in his studio for a volume of Homer’s paintings, now spotted and yellowed with age. “I’ve worn out the books on Winslow Homer.”
But after an afternoon with Spakowsky, I came away thinking that beyond these influences, his art speaks most of his deep love of Vashon, its icy waters and the old-fashioned way of life he holds on to without regret. His subject matter — romantic, windswept vistas of tugboats and other ships maneuvering through choppy waves under billowing grey skies — is something Spakowsky knows well. He knows how wakes spill from boats, the way whitecaps wear frothy frills and how the ocean darkens where it is deepest. Even Spakowsky’s medium, watercolor, is defined by a wild wetness.
“He is surrounded by the things he paints,” said his daughter, Jane DesRosier, who recently moved back to Vashon.
DesRosier is also an artist, and she said she has learned a lot from her father. But she doesn’t try to convince her dad to branch out, as she has, into the world of online sales.
“I think it’s just fine, it’s great, it’s who he is,” she said. “That’s what I love about him — he is who he is. There are no apologies, and he doesn’t explain.”