Current exhibit spotlights islander who made art for history’s sake

In its current special exhibit, the Heritage Museum is showcasing the craft of former islander Marshall Sohl, who told the history of Vashon and its people by rendering it meticulously through wood burning and painting.


In its current special exhibit, the Heritage Museum is showcasing the craft of former islander Marshall Sohl, who told the history of Vashon and its people by rendering it meticulously through wood burning and painting.

Called “Marshall Sohl: You Cross over the Frame into Knowledge,” the show features more than 20 large wooden storyboards and approximately 40 paddles that Sohl created from the 1970s until his death in 2002, along with several personal possessions and photos. Many islanders remember Sohl, who frequently rode Vashon buses and cut a striking image in town with his long flowing white beard and hair, duct-taped shoes and a stuffed duffel bag — both on display as part of the show. Island historian Bruce Haulman and videographer Peter Ray curated the exhibit; it was Haulman’s idea, and Ray, long intrigued with Sohl and his work, was quick to say he would assist when Haulman broached the idea a few years ago.

“I have been fascinated with Marshall since the time I used to see him on the streets,” Ray said.

The two reached out to Sohl’s family members and owners of Sohl’s work and began to assemble the show. The result includes storyboards on the walls and several paddles — many of them on cast-off cores of K2 skies — wood burned, painted and some with glitter, hanging from a mobile and adorned with tape in true Sohl style. Nearby, a large portion of Sohl’s own workshop is set up, complete with working drop lights above the desk and countless three-ring binders full of Sohl’s note-taking and historical research. Combined, those elements, along with the photos of Sohl, including one larger than life by Jenn Reidel, bring to light the man and his remarkable body of work.

Faith Sohl, one of Marshall Sohl’s eight children, still lives on the island. She, a sister and their mother, Dora Mendoza Sohl, attended the opening last month.

“The tears came right to our eyes,” she said. “I felt the sense that Pops was alive. He was alive in that exhibit.”

Speaking about Ray, who assembled the work space, cleaned all the paddles and made the mobile they hang from, Faith Sohl said he succeeded in his goal.

“He tried to capture my dad’s personality. I thought he did a beautiful job. He took the essential pieces and created the feeling of being in his studio,” she said.

Walking through the exhibit last week, Ray noted that when Sohl first began his work, he only did wood burning, but over time, he added paint to his pieces, including vibrant gold and hot pink, and his boards became more colorful — but were always meticulously rendered.

In the center of most of the boards is a dominant image — typically a map — and around it arranged in a uniform grid, countless facts, which Sohl researched, hand-lettered and burned into the wood, along with their locations on the map.

A storyboard about Burton shows all of these elements. The middle of the board shows the Burton Peninsula, and around it in small squares are an array of hand-lettered, woodburned facts that span eras, most serious, some with a flash of humor: “A Vashon glacier recedes in Canada, leaves erratics;” “Canoe tree burial, dead suspended aloft in madronas;” “College burned to ground. Flash fire sets wooden vent on fire. Dec. 20, 1910;” “First library on the isle: A magazine on a log. Newport 1912.”

Haulman, in an article about the exhibit for the museum’s newsletter, points to the craftsmanship in each piece.

“Notice the precisions of the layout — the symmetry of everything, the clarity of the lines, the exactness of the lettering, the deliberate use of paint,” he wrote.

Sohl’s attention to detail sprang from four areas, Haulman added: his training in the Army as a surveyor, his wood burning skill taught by an island neighbor, his attention to historical research fostered by another islander and his experiences in the South Pacific as a combat engineer during World War II.

“If you look at his work, it is overloaded with information,” Haulman said. “There is not a space that is not covered with something. It is a real genius — to have these experiences and put them together in this artwork that is phenomenal. There is nothing else quite like it.”

Sohl was born in 1919 in the Rainier Valley and grew up in the region. When World War II began, he enlisted and was trained as a surveyor and combat engineer, Haulman said, serving mostly in the Pacific Theatre. Of the 200 soldiers who entered the war in Sohl’s unit, only 18 survived.

Afterward, he became a surveyor working on highway projects. When I-5 began in Seattle, he returned to the area and worked on connecting I-5 with the new Highway 520 bridge.

In 1962, the family moved to Vashon from Bothell, where they had been renting a home for $40 a month; he recounted the story in a 2002 Post-Intelligencer article.

“I read in the paper there was land on Vashon going for $18 down and $18 a month. There was no power, no water. Just swamps and forest all around here. I learned how to water witch and dug a well. That was the start of it,” he said.

The family settled in the Spring Beach neighborhood, Haulman added, and there Sohl met one of the men who would influence his work, Baron Elbert von Stauffenberg. Referred to as “The Baron,” he was an accomplished wood burning artist and taught Sohl the skill, which he went on to include in all of his pieces.

Additionally, with island historian Roland Carey, Sohl shared an affinity for detailed historical research, venturing to libraries in Seattle, Portland, Olympia and Tacoma in search of more information.

Speaking to her father’s appreciation of history, Faith Sohl said one of his well-known sayings was, “Some people make art for art’s sake. I make art for history’s sake.”

By some accounts, however, Sohl did not consider himself an artist. In the Post Intelligencer article, he clarified how he saw his himself.

“Not an artist,” he said. “That sounds high. You could call me a primitive. Wookworking’s in my blood, and that’s the truth. I come from people who make things. Just call me a maker.”

Faith Sohl, noting the detail involved in his work, said his large pieces took 1,000 hours to create and he would joke that when he sold them he earned a penny an hour. By the end of his life, that had risen to $1 an hour, though his last piece sold for $2,500.

Ray, who spent hours creating and installing the exhibit, said he has read only portions of each of the storyboards but would like to read them all in their entirety — a task that would take untold hours.

“You could do a feature-length documentary about any one of these boards,” he said. “Any of them you can get sucked into and become curious about.”

Stepping back from one of the pieces he had been reading from, he added, “If anyone wants to supplement their Jesus Barn knowledge of the island, they can come read all about it.”