K2 exhibit offers up a story that’s still fresh

Bruce Kirschner gazes at photos depicting K2, founded by his father.  - Amelia Heagerty/staff photo
Bruce Kirschner gazes at photos depicting K2, founded by his father.
— image credit: Amelia Heagerty/staff photo

The cool air inside the heritage museum is a welcome respite from the soaring temperatures outside, and the subject featured within is similarly frosty.

The walls of the one-room museum are now adorned with its most ambitious and expensive exhibit to date — a retrospective of K2, the world-famous ski brand that began its climb to success on Vashon Island.

The company, begun 45 years ago by Islander Bill Kirschner, is documented in photographs, articles, videos, skis and even baseball cards at the museum on Bank Road. The artifacts tell the notable story of K2, a Vashon company that was the first to make mass-producible fiberglass skis and a powerhouse Island industry until its relocation off-Island in 2006.

“K2 is part of the heritage of our Island, and the heritage museum is the keeper of that history and that story,” said Rebecca Wittman, a Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Museum board member and curator of the K2 retrospective. “The story of K2 is a remarkable story of ingenious thinking and hard work and really smart marketing.”

She said the first time she visited the heritage museum, she noticed there was only one mention of the corporation, which at its peak employed 750 people on Vashon and made skis that were Vashon’s biggest export.

“It struck me as strange,” she said, “because it’s a huge part of the Island’s business history.”

Wittman worked with the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Association, members of the Kirschner family and the K2 Corp. to track down memorabilia that captured an Island success story. The result is a colorful three-dimensional spread that covers every wall in the museum, fills display cases and informs even those who were deeply involved in the story of K2. The show, like all at the museum, is free.

“I knew the beginning, but it was interesting to see everything (K2) had done since 1980, and all the products,” said Bruce Kirschner, who worked at his father’s company for 12 years and served as president of the K2 USA division before retiring.

“It makes you proud,” he said of the exhibit. “It was very well presented.”

His father, K2 founder Bill Kirschner, died three years ago, but Bill’s widow Barbara, 91, took in the K2 retrospective on its opening day in June.

“I think it’s wonderful,” she said as she made her way through the exhibit with a walker. “There’s so many things I’ve never seen before. I think (Bill) would be very pleased. I’m sorry he isn’t here.”

The K2 founder has a presence in the exhibit, however, in many photographs and preliminary designs for the company’s first skis. Pages from his notebook, including sketches of his first ski prototype, give a window into the mind that took K2 to the top.

“I think this exhibit is long overdue,” said Rich Greene, who has worked for K2 for 31 years. “It’s a tribute to a great man who started a great company.”

The exhibit is a nod not only to Kirschner and his innovations, but to the hundreds of Islanders who hold a place in the history of K2.

“I wanted people to see recent history,” Wittman said. “I wanted people to walk into the museum and come face to face with their own history, as opposed to history that happened 100 years ago. If you see your own history in the heritage of the Island, I think you’ll necessarily have a greater appreciation for the history before that time.”

To capture the recent history of Islanders, Island filmmaker Michael Monteleone has volunteered to film recollections and reflections on K2 by Islanders who are formerly or currently involved with the company. People may sign up for a 10-minute slot to share their story at the heritage museum on Aug. 2, the last day the exhibit will be displayed. Some items from the show will likely stay on permanently in one area of the museum, Wittman said.

The retrospective, a huge undertaking, was made possible with donations of time and materials by K2, Wittman, Greene and several other Islanders. Photograph reproduction, mounting materials and reinforcing the museum’s walls also added to the show’s price tag — a cost the small nonprofit museum could not have paid if K2 and Islanders had not given their talents, time and materials, Wittman said.

“We were very lucky, in that a number of people stepped forward to give their time,” she said. “We all worked out of the red.”

The all-encompassing show is the second of its kind at the heritage museum. The first was last summer’s show of Norman Edson photographs. It, too, took over the entire museum when it was displayed.

Wittman said the museum would like to put on a special large show every summer, though next year’s show will likely not reach the scale of the K2 exhibit.

The museum is also planning a show in September, one that will not take the entire museum but will be a draw to many Islanders — a spread about turn-of-the-century local painter Abby Williams Hill, who spent months at a time camping and painting on Vashon.

Next summer’s big event is still in the works, Wittman said.

Reflecting on this summer’s show, she said it’s proof that amazing things can happen — even in the worst of times.

“The story of K2 is a great reminder for us right now that even though times are tough, this all began at the same time that Boeing was handing out pink slips,” she said. “It was an identical economic time to today. So who knows what’s in store for us today. It’s a very hopeful piece of history.”

See the exhibit

Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Museum is located at 10105 Bank Road S.W. It is open 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Call 463-7808 for more information.

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