BY ELIZABETH SHEPHERD
Michael Spakowsky, a revered local watercolorist and musician, died on Sunday, Jan. 26. He was 64.
Spakowsky died of a fast-moving cancer that was diagnosed only a few weeks ago, said his daughter, Daphne Edwards.
Known on Vashon and throughout the region as a maritime painter, Spakowsky was deeply influenced by the beauty of the Northwest and particularly Vashon Island and its surrounding waters.
“There is such a sense of Vashon and its history in his work,” said island artist Brian Brenno, who was also a friend and admirer of Spakowsky.
His paintings often showed a solitary vessel — a tug, trawler, sailboat or ferry — kicking up whitecaps as it plowed through the waters of Puget Sound, framed by majestic mountains or log-strewn cobble beaches.
The paintings, in some ways, were an apt metaphor for the way Spakowsky charted his own singular course as an artist.
By his own account in a 2012 interview with The Beachcomber, Spakowsky made two paintings a week for 40 years — more than 4,000 in all — almost all of which he sold for prices ranging from $200 to $600. He wanted to be able to sell them to working-class people, he said, and around 1,000 of the paintings, he estimated, hang on Vashon walls — making him by far the most collected painter on the island.
He also exhibited his works at respected 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 were accepted in Foss Maritime’s prestigious calendar competition. More recently, he showed his work at Duet, a Vashon shop and gallery.
Spakowsky was also well known on the island as a spirited entertainer.
In the 1970s, he and his brother, James (Jimmy) Spakowsky, formed a rock band, The Doily Brothers.
According to Jimmy, the band’s name was invented by the group’s original drummer, Tony Ortega.
“We thought it was cool, that it sounded like an old rock band,” he said.
One of the group’s biggest gigs came in 1972, when they opened for Alice Cooper at the Paramount in Seattle. But throughout the years, the Doily Brothers drew crowds for their shows on the island.
According to Brenno, the band’s music was, for his generation, a kind of soundtrack to life on Vashon.
“The Doily Brothers played at every party, every dance from the 1970s until now,” he said.
The band’s music was steeped in old-time rock and roll, rockabilly and country western, but they didn’t simply play a hit parade of covers from the 1960s and 70s. Their set list was also filled with forgotten gems of American music.
As the group’s frontman, Spakowsky held the stage with a personal charisma that was both buoyant and edgy. He stood on stage, wielding his guitar and moving to the band’s music as though it might be a small earthquake or a sudden storm at sea. A mischievous look on his face suggested that something wild might just happen at any moment.
In the 2012 Beachcomber article, his friend Danny Cadman called Spakowsky an example of “God-given talent” in both his art and music, adding that he knew many people were “amazed by his ability.”
But his daughter, Daphne Edwards, has more personal memories of her father as a warm, loving man, who always had a hug and encouraging words for her.
“He was very affectionate,” she said. “The last thing he told me is that I was wonderful.”
Edwards recounted how her father’s many friends on the island had been finding ways to memorialize him since his death.
“Some people have been sailing, others have been doing art and sketching,” she said, adding that other friends had gathered together to listen to her father’s favorite albums.
Spakowsky moved to Vashon with his family in 1954 and grew up mostly in Burton, close to the water.
Throughout his adulthood, he lived simply, in a house he built himself using mostly salvaged materials, on a 2-acre plot near Paradise Ridge that he bought for $7,500 in 1989. His art brought in enough money, he told The Beachcomber, to “keep me in groceries” and pay for his single biggest expense — his property taxes, which skyrocketed over the years.
Although he lived alone after his divorce from Gloria Beymer Check in the earlier 1980s, he always seemed to have plenty of company. His three daughters stayed with him on holidays and during the summers when they were young, and in what Spakowsky called a “bunkhouse” adjacent to his house, friends frequently resided for days or weeks at a time.
After coming of age in the freewheeling world of 1970s Vashon, Spakowsky seemed content to never leave that era. Islanders were accustomed to spotting him motoring down Vashon Highway in his 1967 turquoise and white Galaxy 500 — he owned the car for 30 years. By his own account, he never owned a computer, a cell phone or even an answering machine. He never stopped listening to records, playing his favorite music by George Jones, Merle Haggard and other country legends on an old turntable and tape deck in his living room.
The way he earned his living also belonged to another time. When he wasn’t making art or music, he supplemented his income with commercial fishing jobs, working on tugs and toiling as a handyman.
But as the news of his death spread early this week, the mourning of the community expressed itself in a more modern way, as islanders took to social media to grieve his passing.
Brenno summed up his feelings about Spakowsky’s impact on the island in a simple way.
“He touched a lot of people with his art,” he said.
Spakowsky is survived by his mother Lucille Spakowsky, brothers James and Anthony Spakowsky, his three daughters, Traci Palagi and son-in-law Guy Palagi; Jane Spakowsky, Daphne Edwards and son-in-law Keith Edwards. He also had six grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his father, Peter Spakowsky, and his brother, also named Peter.
A funeral service is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 1, at Island Funeral Service. A gathering to celebrate his life will follow at a location to be announced. Call 463-9300 for more information.
— Elizabeth Shepherd is The Beachcomber’s former arts editor.