"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Fleeting Windows of Serendipity

I suppose certain events had to come into play before my latest adventure could occur. Perhaps the planets needed to align themselves just so, or the forces of humankind and the forces of nature had to mesh in a certain way, or lady luck had to smile on me at just the proper moment.

On the other hand, maybe the only thing that needed to happen was for a very special woman to need firewood at the same time I was walking by her home in Halibut Cove. Regardless, Serendipity, that goddess of winsome chance, opened a window and I was favored with the presence of Diana Tillion, the eighty-one year old matriarch of Halibut Cove.

The Tillion home in Halibut Cove.

“Hello, Diana,” I called as I watched the small woman in a navy blue fleece jacket step off her porch with several plastic totes in hand, set them on the ground, and drag the lot in my direction with a rope attached to the biggest—and bottom— tote. She looked up and smiled, not quite sure she recognized who it was passing by her front yard, but ready to greet the person graciously, nonetheless.

“Gracious” the perfect word for this matriarch. Renowned artist, author, and book illustrator, loved and respected in her community and far beyond, Diana Tillion is the embodiment of graciousness. We first met a couple years ago on the Stormbird, the rugged steel-hulled vessel that carries the mail to and from Halibut Cove twice a week. We spoke briefly because the mail boat trip is a great social occasion during winter, and many others were there to speak with Diana and her husband Clem.

The next time I saw her was last February. This time the occasion was movie night—Saturday night at the Tillion’s, bring a DVD movie, and the Tillions offer a spread of goodies on their large table, supplemented by additions from other cove residents. I was there for only a few hours that evening, and I am not sure she remembered me, so I told her my name again and mentioned that I house-sat for my friends Jim and Jan when they went on winter vacations.

Then, knowing that she had undergone major surgery a couple months ago, I asked where she was going with the totes. “To get some firewood,” she replied. For all I knew, she was off to fetch a chain saw and fall one of the many spruce trees in the cove that have been killed by spruce bark beetles. I was also aware that her husband Clem was not at home because I had met him a few minutes before, heading in the opposite direction on the trail I’d taken to get here. I asked if I could help, and she accepted my offer. The totes were placed in a John Deere ATV, something like a Hummer version of a golf cart, and off we went a few hundred feet to a well-stocked wood shed.

Diana in the John Deere ATV.

As we loaded the totes with dry split wood, I asked Diana if she was doing any painting. She invited me to see her gallery, and soon we were wheeling up a steep hill in the Hummer-cart, and coming to a stop at her gallery. We were the only two there—the tourists would arrive later on the thirty-four passenger ferry Danny J, a converted fishing vessel operated by Tillion family members.

We paused at each painting as Diana identified the location of the scene and explained why she painted it, often telling me a small story connected to the painting that gave me snippets of this remarkable woman’s remarkable life. When we reached the end of one wall, an ink sketch caught my eye. Through words and diagrams, the sketch explained how ink is extracted from octopi.

This was not an eclectic piece in Diana’s gallery, because she is famous for her paintings in octopus ink. I tried to word my immediate question carefully: “So, do you mean the octopus is still alive after you take its ink?”

“Oh, yes!” she exclaimed. Then she told me of looking for large rocks as she strolled the beaches during extreme low tides. “I look for a small hole under the rock, and if the water in the hole is moving, then the octopus is home,” she continued. “I inject a substance—I use bleach—into the hole, then stand behind the rock until it comes out. I pick it up, turn it over, and use a syringe to withdraw the ink from the gland.”

I had visions of eight suckered legs wrapping around her arms and a face full of squirted black ink as she extracted her art medium, only a few cc’s worth per octopus.

“When I’ve finished,” she said, “I set the octopus down and it scurries away.” She smiled and so did I as I watched her eyes sparkle with the telling of the tale. So, it is no small wonder that my favorite painting among the many was an octopus ink drawing of the cove on a foggy morning. I do not know much about art and painting techniques, but I appreciated a deft touch in the strokes that rendered the fog.

Diana Tillion's art studio.

“Come with me,” she said, “I want to show you the bird room.” We walked around a partition to a quiet corner of the gallery floor. On the walls and on the center display were numerous paintings of the birds she has seen in more than a half century of living in Halibut Cove. “I learned to turn my back to them,” she explained. “Then I slowly turn to face them, and they will sit and let me sketch them.”

She identified each bird, many of which I’ve never seen, living inland as I do. And then we went to the top floor where she plies her craft. On various tables were works in progress “by the kids.” She explained that her grandchildren come here to practice drawing and painting. Diana Tillion was the driving influence behind Halibut Cove becoming a community of artists in all media, painting, sculpture, ceramics, jewelry, and writing. She has taught art at the Kenai Peninsula College campus in Homer, and holds an honorary PhD in humane letters from the University of Alaska.

As we left the studio, I was in awe and almost speechless. Not only was I in the company of a living legend, not only had I received a private showing of her exquisite art, not only was she chauffeuring me down a steep hillside in this golf-cart-on-steroids on a gloriously sunny summer day in this picturesque village by the sea, but I knew in my heart how very special this visit was, and there was more to come.

Back at her home, we unloaded the wood-filled totes from the cart and set them on the tile floor inside her front door. While I was unloading the last two from the cart and placing them inside, I was only dimly aware of what she was doing. It appeared to me that she was stacking two totes in a cabinet.

Wood box, I said to myself, then wondered where she would put the other two. She pushed a button beside the cabinet. Suddenly I realized what she was doing. The cabinet was not a cabinet at all, but a dumb waiter that raised the two totes to the second level—the main living level of their home. She delighted in showing the whole operation to me, pushing the button to return the two totes to the ground floor so I could take a photograph, and she graciously consented to be in the picture.

Diana Tillion and the easy way to haul firewood upstairs.

Clem returned from his jaunt as we were finishing up. He is a remarkably robust man of eighty-four, another living legend in Alaska. A long-time commercial fisherman, patriarch of the Tillion clan, he served nine terms as a state legislator and has been a leading advocate for fisheries management for many years. If there’s a board that has to do with commercial fishing in the Pacific northwest, most likely Clem has either chaired it or been seated on it.

I turned to say goodbye to Diana. “I hope to see you again soon, Diana,” I said as I put my arm around her slender shoulders and gave her a hug.

Wrapping her arms around me tightly, she said, “I hope so, too, dear. I really hope so.”

The float tree.

Sometimes, I am not aware of all the complex factors that intersect to allow a certain thing to occur. Sometimes, I am oblivious to lady luck, chance, and fate. But Serendipity? I know Serendipity. And I know how very blessed I am to have visited with the Lady Diana, to have helped her with the firewood, to have received a personal tour of her creative sanctuary, and to have spent a few fleeting minutes with her when Serendipity and I happened to stroll by her home on a sunny afternoon in Halibut Cove.


  1. I feel honored that you took me along on your thrilling visit and delighted by your exquisite description of the experience. I'd never heard of squid ink drawings before, and who would guess the critters would be so docile about having private parts invaded?

    I'm adding a link to your blog on mine, and I'd love to discuss some aspects of writing with you. Since you don't include an e-mail address on your blog, could you please contact me at ritergal (at) gmail.com?

  2. I'm so happy for you, Gully. What an honor to be in the company of such an artist. Serendipity, good old serendipity--when you venture out frequently as you do, the chances are good that unexpected and lovely things will come your way.

    I'm sure Diana enjoyed your assistance with her wood and your interest in her artistic works. And, of course, I know she appreciated spending time with another artist, you, Gully.

  3. Hi,
    I found you through our mutal friend Shaddy, I am so glad that I did.

    It's a very lovely place to visit, so you can be assured that I will be back.

    Thank you for sharing with us all.
    Much love
    Lia xx

  4. The Tilians are what I'd expect out of Alaska: strong, sturdy, pioneer stock. I can't help but to wonder if Alaskans are influenced by the same tofu and bean sprout crowd the rest of us are subjected to.

    Thanks for letting us in on your experience with two phenomenal people.

  5. As usual, you are at your best when you tell a people story and this is one of your best

  6. Oh and one more thing. I am one of the few people in the world that have written with ~120 million year old octapod/decapod ink.. I was from the Lias Epsilon of Holzmaden, Germany and it was well preserved dried ink that we mixed with alcohol and used for just a few strokes. It worked well. The fossil in still on the wall of the Geological Institute of the University of Tübingen.
    How does that rate?

  7. Thank you for this, Gully,.....I really enjoyed it.