They Gave Me a Ship

Wawona under bird attack. From University of Washington.

Artist John Grade received a schooner last year, and he was excited when he told me about it recently.  I should probably mention that this schooner wasn’t exactly in sailing condition.  To be frank, John didn’t intend to sail it at all. But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.

Inside the Wawona in 2001. From University of Washington.

If you visited Seattle’s Center for Wooden Boats prior to 2009, you may recall seeing the hulking remains of a large wooden ship on the west side of the docks.  This hulk, known as the Wawona, actually belonged to the NW Seaport.  Unfortunately, they were never able to get the funds to rebuild her, and amidst controversy it was eventually decided that she would be dismantled and given away to various groups. 

“So, they gave me the ship,” John reported, “and I took it apart.”  It wasn’t an easy task.  Apparently the Wawona was full of blind joints, iron rods, and other interesting pieces of living history, each with a story, so John couldn’t simply saw the hulk into the bits he needed for his commission: a sculpture for the new Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI).  Instead, he had to deconstruct it.  Some people might consider this a nuisance; I got the feeling that while John spent more time working on it than he expected, the deconstruction process was an added, interesting bonus to him.

3 Wawona - close exterior detail

I’ve met John on a few occasions and find him to be consistently enthusiastic, thoughtful without being dull, and highly inquisitive. As a fan of improbable adventure and impractical projects, I feel inspired around John.  He always seems to be on the hunt for things to work on, and sees opportunity wherever he goes.

During a recent discussion he wanted to know what my workplace had in its boneyard – Old equipment? Downed trees? Rusting trucks? I told him that we didn’t really have one, but I could round up stuff if he let me know what he needed. John shook his head and smiled.  He explained that he wanted to be inspired by whatever materials happened to be at hand.  To me, this attitude exemplifies the concept of connecting art to a place.  Without context, an artwork is just an object.

6 Wawona - interior entry view

In its new home, the reconstructed Wawona sits just a few hundred feet from its former moorage. John shared a bunch of photos of the project, which is several stories tall, and pierces the floor and ceiling of the museum.  Unlike a traditional sculpture, this one is made to be interactive.  You can walk inside its curved and fluted surface.  It appears to float, and moves slightly at the touch.

12 Wawona - roof south view

I like John and hope you will too.  Over the next few months, I will be profiling him and his work.  A great behind the scenes sculpture construction video here.  The new MOHAI installation opens December 29th.  Stay tuned.


  1. I volunteered for Northwest Seaport in the late 70s and early 80s and spent a day carrying debris out of the hold of Wawona. I spent much more time on Arthur Foss, a diesel tug, which is still running. The Wawona was just too big, bigger than just about any successful “tall ship” project. The restoration was unmanageable, and I think the boat would have been too much to operate and maintain. Also, it was just a big empty cargo ship, so it didn’t have the interest you get with, say, a tug, pilot schooner or warship. (Arthur Foss was a heap of fun to race.) Wawona was a sad story, but I’m glad somebody got creative with it.

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