Kajira Wyn Berry, a luminous presence in Vashon’s arts scene, died on Nov. 19, at her Burton home. She was 94 years old.
Berry’s vast body of work most significantly included calligraphy but also sculpture, paintings, photojournalism, and literary works that included a sweeping historical novel, “Everlasting Sky,” published when she was 80 years old.
According to her son, Duncan Berry, Kaj’s death was caused by heart and respiratory conditions that had worsened following a fall in July.
In the weeks before her death, Kaj had visited her local doctor, who advised her to go to an emergency room immediately following a series of tests. But in her parked car outside the health clinic, Duncan said, Kaj had made her wishes known to her longtime partner, David Steel.
“I’m never leaving the island again,” she told Steel. “I’m going home.”
Kaj moved to Vashon in 1975, at the age of 48.
She arrived on the island with her then-husband Don Berry, a noted novelist, after the pair had spent time living on a sailboat in the endless blue of the Caribbean.
But on Vashon’s shores, she quickly found both purpose and a deep sense of place. She played a key role in the renaissance of Vashon Allied Arts (VAA) — now known as Vashon Center for the Arts — joining a cadre of visual artists who put the nonprofit on the map in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The group included Christine Beck, Janice Mallman, Penny Grist, Laura White, among others.
Their era of influence saw VAA’s first art auction and the purchase of a new home for the group: the Odd Fellows Hall at Center, which Kaj renamed the Blue Heron.
Kaj had many skills to offer as VAA became the centerpiece of the arts community.
“She was a seasoned artist when she got here,” Beck said. “She thought everything we did was great, and she was there for it, with whatever she could do.”
An experienced journalist, Kaj wrote a series of articles for The Beachcomber during that time, raising awareness of the island as a vibrant place for the arts.
In a 2008 interview, Kaj recalled how her writing for the local newspaper had made a difference.
“The Beachcomber gave people who lived here a sense of what was happening in the arts, but it also went off island, when people were wondering if this would be a good place to live,” Kaj said. “People said ‘hey, where there are a lot of artists is a good place to raise kids.’ So it was a self-fulfilling prophecy — it generated the interest in the kind of people who would make the arts flourish here.”
Later, a long-running public art project, Hiway Haiku, which Kaj created with her longtime friend and studio mate Hita von Mende, also helped signal that Vashon was a place where poetry and art mattered.
Von Mende, whose 46-year friendship with Kaj began when the pair met inside a laundromat shortly after both had arrived on Vashon, recalled her friend’s multiple talents as well her deeply supportive and inspirational presence.
“She was so smart,” von Mende said. “Everybody who had a chance to work next to her was lucky.”
For their Hiway Haiku project, the pair created revolving “Burma Shave”-style signage, emblazoned with haikus calligraphed by Kaj, and placed them at the bottom of the hill leading to the North End ferry dock.
The project began in the late 1990s and continues to this day, having now been taken over by islander Mike Feinstein, with calligraphy done by Suzanne Moore.
One of the early haikus, by island poet Ann Spiers, captured the pace of island life from two different vantage points.
The Great Blue Heron
calculates its next strike
… ferries late again
Throughout the years, the signs were sometimes knocked down or stolen, but Kaj and von Mende kept resurrecting their project.
“It’s our gift to the community,” Kaj told The Beachcomber. “We do it with joy.”
Kaj was born on July 21, 1927, in Buffalo, New York, to Rachel Adams Shirley and John Shirley, a skilled woodworker and cabinet maker.
The family’s American life dated back to the 1700s — a heritage that included sea captains, revolutionaries, and a direct ancestral link to President John Quincy Adams.
Kaj fit the swashbuckling family mold. At age 15, she learned how to fly, with private lessons funded by her encouraging father. She then became an aerobatic pilot, guiding her plane into the kinds of graceful loops, spins, and rolls that she would later replicate with her calligraphy pen.
In the 1940s, after developing asthma, she moved with her mother to Florida, where her adventures included performing underwater and milking venomous snakes for a herpetologist.
By this time tall, with long legs, a lithe figure and a brilliant smile, she also began to work as a model — an occupation she would return to later in life.
At age 19, Kaj married Archie Buie, a jet fighter pilot who went on to serve in the Korean War. By 1955, she was the mother of three: David, born in Florida in 1948; Bonny, born at Hamilton Air Force Base, in California, in 1951, and Duncan, born in Orlando, Florida, in 1955.
The marriage ended in divorce in 1956, leading to a new chapter in Kaj’s life, when she married Don Berry in 1958.
With Don and her children, she moved back across the country to Portland, attending and graduating from Reed College, where she studied with renowned calligraphy master Lloyd Reynolds.
Under Reynolds’ tutelage, Kaj found passion and peace in the meditative art of calligraphy. Her teacher’s profound influence is detailed on her website, kajirawynberry.com.
“The Sufis say that at any point in time there are seven great teachers in the world, but they may not know who they are. I’m sure Lloyd was one of them,” she wrote. “He enriched so many of us with the dance of letters, thicks and thins, graceful line and the concept of negative shape. That’s my world — meaning and form together.”
Throughout this time, Kaj was also a devoted parent. During her husband’s extended travels, she raised her children as a de-facto single mother who had to hustle to make a living.
She taught with Reynolds at the Portland Museum Art School, found more modeling jobs, and taught at Catlin Gabel School — a job that included the benefit of a stellar education for her own children.
Eventually, she launched a successful career as a photojournalist for Time-Life, working as a stringer on the West Coast and winning first prize in the professional category of Life Magazine’s International Competition.
Along the way, Kaj shared her buoyant spirit with her children.
Her eldest son, David, recalled some aspects of the family’s life as challenging, as they lived in “many houses, tents, friends’ backyard and boats while she pursued her goals.” Still, he said, he and his brother and sister learned to love to read and were exposed to art and music of all varieties.
“One of her favorite songs was ‘you have to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative,’ which was how she led her life and taught us,” David said.
Bonny and Duncan, too, recalled their mother’s devotion, saying they always felt like they were her top priority, despite her whirlwind life.
Eleven times, they said, Kaj took them on meandering cross-country road trips, visiting parks and historic sites on their way to summers in Martha’s Vineyard and Florida with family.
Years later, after her children were grown and her marriage to Don Berry had also ended in divorce, Kaj returned to the road, but this time as a solo traveler. And once again, she found jobs modeling or working as a reporter while camping out and visiting family members and friends.
But on a hot summer day on Vashon in 1993, she met David Steel at a “ceremony of light” — leading to the last great chapter of love in her life.
“I invited her to go on a kayak trip to Blake Island that day, which we did — and started a relationship that lasted for 28 years,” Steel said.
The couple never married, preferring to call themselves “sweethearts” or “contubernal tent mates,” said Steel.
Their life together was rich with travels to many different countries, Steel said, where they “hiked, kayaked and dove beneath the surfaces of the cultures they encountered.” They also shared a business, Vashon Kayak, for 16 years. And in 2003, they became active and original members of Puget Sound Zen Center and shared a vibrant spiritual life with each other and the community.
And all the while, Kaj kept painting, writing, and making art — with four new calligraphic haiku works, one for each season, completed just weeks ago and now on view in Vashon Heritage Museum’s “Natural Wonders” exhibit.
“She picked up her pen and calligraphed her final work … in large scale and in no time,” said Bonny. “Despite her gnarled fingers, bent by arthritis and time, the letters continued to flow fresh and young from her pen.”
Islanders can also see Kaj’s work at Open Space for Arts & Community, where her calligraphy on a silk banner hangs prominently.
Across the banner, words dance, swell and swoop: “Whatever you can do — or dream — begin it.”
Kaj is survived by her sweetheart, David Steel; her son David Berry and his wife, Elya; her daughter Bonny Kelly, and her son Duncan Berry and his wife, Melany; her grandchildren Sam, Dylan, Marie, Julianna, Nazar, Alalia, Morgan, Sara and Arielle; and great-grandchildren Jackson, Sierra, Brixton, Gracie, Leela, Laura and Claire.
A memorial service planned to take place in person and on Zoom, will now be held on Zoom only at 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 18, at Puget Sound Zen Center. Those wishing to attend via Zoom or to donate to Kaj’s memorial fund at the Puget Sound Zen Center should visit pszc.org/kaj for further details.