The Labrador, a massive boat docked on the Willamette River near the edge of Sauvie Island, was once used to pick up the dead in World War II. The 135-foot craft looks out of place, dwarfing all the pleasure boats docked near it. But since April it's been used as a creative incubator for four recent Lewis & Clark College art graduates. And after climbing up its spindly metal ladder and walking into a crisp, white studio space with Zoë Clark and Lewis Feuer, two of the artists who built and use the space, it's hard to imagine the Labrador anywhere but Portland.
"It was always a pipe dream of mine," fellow artist Kyle Thompson says of making the boat-studio. After the Labrador was used to ship bodies home from Europe in World War II, it became a Bering Sea-based fishing vessel. Kyle's dad, Dave Thompson, worked on it for 25 years as a crab fisherman until its fishing rights were sold to the government. He eventually became sole owner of the Labrador—a house-aft, twin-screw Navy hull crabber—and moved it to Portland, which has cheaper moorage rates than where it was in Seattle. This allowed Kyle and his friends to maintain and use it, splitting the cost of moorage and utilities between them.
The boat is a labyrinth of rooms and hidden nooks, each turn revealing living quarters (though none of the artists resides on the vessel) and subchambers dedicated to operational functions, with countless dials, buttons and levers.
Clark, Feuer, Thompson and Caitlin Ducey, all 23 or 24, are like most artists their age—they have day jobs. Ducey works in a cafe, Feuer works at an after-school art program, Thompson is an adjunct chemistry instructor, and Clark is between jobs. However, they've created a space of their own on the Labrador—building a steel and canvas structure on its deck, installing flooring, putting up track lights and walls—that allows them to work together in a creative environment. The four met while studying sculpture under Lewis & Clark professor Mike Rathbun. "Their work is very different, but they're all driven," Rathbun says of the quartet. "They've found an energy together, and I think they'll keep it up."
Their impetus as artists is reflected more fully in their work than any of the four could ever verbalize. Ducey's sculptures are intricate in texture. Several are made with layers of plastic straws that form a subtly transparent whole. One looks like a distorted kaleidoscope. These large pieces are made of thousands of straws—held together by their own weight, without adhesive.
Clark's work is clean and playful; she uses objects like a white ladder in one piece and smooth, dusty-feeling scraps of thin latex in another. Feuer unrolls a collection of his abstract drawings on the floor (which is remarkably solid despite the water flowing underneath the boat). They're about 8 feet by 18 inches, composed of elegant, swerving black lines of varying weight. Thompson's art is stark and severe. One of his sculptures, an imposing, uninterrupted mass of concrete, looks like an optical illusion as it rests on a surface of similar material. As Rathbun observes of their sculptures, "It's not just gallery work; it's work that asks questions, and it's gratifying to see them doing that."
Without the Labrador, they probably wouldn't be asking those questions together. Clark remarks that the studio has extended her stay in Portland. Ducey was living in Berlin and decided to move back to Portland because she didn't have the space to work there. "I'm still figuring out how to work outside of an academic structure," Feuer acknowledges. They're all open to the idea of going to graduate school, but as a friend of theirs noticed, it's like they "created their own graduate school."
In May, the group held an open studio that drew about 50 people, and they have plans to hold more events on the boat for other artists. "It seems a little isolated and self-serving to focus on showing our own work in our own space," Thompson says. Right now, they're transforming former crab-tank rooms into studios so the current studio can be used solely for showing work. They've named the space "12128," a reference to the boat's ADF&G number, which Thompson explains is a "radio call sign of sorts." When asked about other plans, they say they've considered becoming affiliated with a school or offering a residency program. "But the dream is to take the boat somewhere and show art where we tie off," Thompson says, and Ducey, Feuer and Clark agree. After all, it only takes 24,000 gallons of diesel to fill the tank.
FLOATING WORLD: Half of 12128's creative core, Lewis Feuer and Caitlin Ducey, on board their boat/art studio, the Labrador. IMAGE: Darryl James
guest curated by Sam Korman, runs Sept. 4-12 at Labrador/12128, 12900 NW Marina Way. Opening party 6-9 pm Saturday, Sept. 4, and closing party 2-5 pm Sunday, Sept. 12. The gallery will be open by appointment during the week. Info and directions at labradorproject.com.