Mark C. Anderson
The Brand-New Sculpture at Orcas Harbor Is the One-of-a-Kind—in More Than One Way
Updated: Oct 22, 2020
Its creator calls it The Kelp Kraken.
The name works. The freshly completed sculpture is nothing if not a magical bit of seaweed that looks kinetic and alive. It bears resemblance to a kraken, the octopus-looking sea monster of Scandinavian folklore fame. And it might just be carnivorous itself: After all, it is reaching some 30 or 40 feet with its tentacle-like blades toward the tasty crab to its east.
Experts call the sculpture historic—for Orcas Island and the entirety of San Juan County. The reason is simple: It’s the first public art installation on the islands commissioned by county government.
The reason for its creation was two-fold: 1) island aesthetics and 2) public safety.
Before the art installation there were various ways people described the massive retaining wall that went in at Orcas Island Ferry Landing over the course of the last three years. None were too positive. “Ugly” was a popular descriptor. “Cold” was common. “Faux military” is one I heard from a local.
But for the blacksmith tasked with helping transform it from eyesore to art with a mix of steel, epoxy and elbow grease, there was a more important way to understand it.
“It wasn't Orcas Island enough,” longtime local Zackarya Leck (above) says. “It didn’t complement the feel of this place.”
Born at Rosario and a permanent resident since 2001, he’s got the island understanding to give that gravitas. That came in handy when San Juan County went looking for input on how to reimagine the much-trafficked area where thousands board and deboard Washington state ferries daily.
San Juan County Environmental Resources Manager Kendra Smith (above) launched the project and started by seeking out local artists who could collaborate.
Along with other local creatives, volunteers and county officials, Leck participated in the ensuing design charrettes, furnished a bunch of good ideas and, later, drawings and models. He was awarded $20,000 for the commission, which was funded by Public Facilities Financing Assistance Program (which is in turn fed by what is called a rural sale and use tax, which by law must be used on public facilities).
Given all the time, metal and muscle he’s invested, that sounds like a steal.
“Some might cringe when they see that number, but I know [Leck] put in way more than that,” Smith says. “We need to set up a donations page.”
Leck says the inspiration was to transform something harsh into something hospitable, in as Orcas a way as possible.
"I wanted to counter the built environment and to help people feel how the ocean relates to the island, to counter an imposing and austere retaining wall with a welcome," he says. "I hope people stop and think when they see it and experience wonder."
He describes working on that scale for the first time as "daunting."
"I was kinda scared—which is how I knew it was a good thing to do," he says. "Plus my wife told me it was a good thing."
Other parts of the harbor project are ongoing. They include the landing downhill and west of The Kelp Kraken, which looks over the Salish Sea.
There Puget Sound-based sculptor and designer Bruce Meyer has arranged massive cut granite tables and benches that now rest on gravel; soon he'll pour cleverly designed pavers to complement interpretive panels with art by wilderness painter Larry Eifert. The panels will spotlight native wildlife and the wider ecosystem.
Smith hopes it will encourage the county to incorporate more art, and thinks the cumulative impact reaches beyond beauty.
“I hope it opens people’s minds and curiosity more than just admiring the view,” she says. “Yes it's a lovely view, but how many stroll by without thinking about what's going on in the ocean?
“The idea is to get people engaged with the environment and islands in a way that goes well past reading a pamphlet.”
Then there's the public-safety piece. There was something about the pre-Kraken wall that caught the attention of parents and personal injury lawyers in particular: It was dangerous.
Because of the dramatic slope of the driveway it borders, it’s easy for a small kid to go from a ledge 2 feet off the ground to one 25-plus up. And the wall was also inviting to climbers who might fall themselves.
So the first part of the sculpture was the crustacean close to the ramp, which blocks people from traversing the top of the wall.
“The crab had a job,” Leck says. “To protect.
"In many ways, what looks like a sculpture is a design solution."
His apprentice Emmett Pearsons (above right) helped forge and assemble the sculpture over days and weeks that followed months of planning. It marks the latest intriguing project among many they’ve taken on of late, including a kinetic dock swing and a helix spiral staircase. Island fine art painter and sculptor Ina Drosu collaborated on design. I even helped dangle and bend some tentacles as Leck and Pearsons bolted and welded them into place, but mostly I gawked at the Kraken as it grew from its stipes and stretched further afield, sparks flying.
Leck says the project was important on a both a public art and personal level.
“It’s a way to talk about, in my own way, what I care deeply about: the intertidal zone," he says. "The kelp is such a magical plant, and many aren't aware of it, let alone that it's a keystone species."
While Leck has lived most of his life on Orcas Island, he did leave for formative middle school and high school years. In coming back, he says, he was able to appreciate Orcas with new depth.
The same will be true for many locals and The Kelp Kraken, in a different but related way. They might not see the sculpture until they're returning to Orcas on the ferry. And when they do, they'll encounter more appreciation for an incredible place.
For more on Leck’s work, follow @zack_lak on Instagram or visit the Zack Leck website. For additional insight into how voluntary citizens advisory groups work with the county government on projects that protect and restore the marine waters, habitats and species of the Salish Sea visit the San Juan County Marine Resources Committee.