Paul Conte/For EO Media Group
The world is only beginning to appreciate the talent and massive output of Arvi Ostrom, an Astoria native who quietly produced thousands of works of art during his lifetime.
Ostrom, who owned the Snug Harbor Tavern in Uniontown, passed away in 1995. While in hospice care, he had one last request.
“He said, ‘Will you take care of my art for me?’ the day before he died,” said Ken Carlson, Ostrom’s grandson. Carlson, an artist and a musician himself, shared his grandfather’s interest in art, so naturally he agreed.
But what Carlson figured would be a few hundred pieces turned out to be more than 10,000 that Ostrom left behind.
“At that time I didn’t really know what he had done,” Carlson said. “No one did.”
In order to create so many pieces, Ostrom must have averaged about three a week.
For the last 22 years, Carlson has made it his mission to display his grandfather’s collection. “I felt like his stuff should be honored,” Carlson said.
Recently, he opened an exhibit, “Behind the Bar: The Folk Art of Arvi Ostrom and the Snug Harbor,” at the Clatsop County Historical Society’s Heritage Museum to display selections of Ostrom’s work. Carlson collaborated with Astoria artist Darren Orange, who said “it’s really an honor” to be involved.
Ostrom has been “finally given a voice and a place to show his work (by) being honored at this exhibition,” Orange said. “It’s inspiring for me as an artist to see the value the community puts on his work.”
Ostrom’s artwork is “kind of a microscope of Astoria history,” said Mac Burns, executive director of the historical society. “I think it is an amazing collection. The fact that it’s all in one collection still is incredible.”
Ostrom’s art ranges from sketches and paintings, to wood carvings and birthday cards. Carlson said if you really look at the paintings while holding them at a particular angle, hidden faces appear in clouds and water.
“He’s drawing architecture. He’s drawing boats. He’s drawing people,” Orange said. “That’s very meaningful to me as a viewer. It’s like he’s capturing time with his drawing.”
Living two lives
Ostrom was born July 13, 1904, in Astoria and graduated from Astoria High School, where he played basketball and football. He enrolled at the University of Oregon to play football but, when he could no longer afford school, began to work in a sawmill while playing club basketball.
Later, Ostrom became the owner of the Snug Harbor, a saloon that was also a restaurant, coffeehouse and a place to display his artwork. Carlson said that, at one point, Ostrom’s bar was almost shut down because people were boycotting him for not serving to intoxicated people. But customers continued visiting the Snug Harbor to see Ostrom’s artwork. “His art helped his business survive,” Carlson said.
To this day, Carlson said they are finding more of Ostrom’s work. Family members could each have around 20 pieces of art. Carlson went exploring in his aunt’s attic and found Ostrom’s carvings.
Ostrom dedicated most of his life to making art. Carlson said he has work that his grandfather made from the 1920s to the 1990s. “He was drawing all the way up until he died.”
Carlson laughed as he recalled the time he drew with black crayon in grade school, which caused the teacher to “freak out” and tell his mother something was wrong with him.
Looking back, he believes it was because he watched his grandfather draw with chalk. He remembered thinking: “That’s what Gramps does.”
As years passed, Carlson would visit his grandfather often and play music for him. He said he has written songs about Ostrom’s art, a huge influence in his life.
“I was really close to him,” Carlson said. “I always appreciated what he did, and he understood that I was just always interested in what he was doing.”
Carlson has made it a goal to show Ostrom’s work because he knows “how hard it is to be an artist,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of people understand artists have to live two lives.”
A documentary of Ostrom’s story titled “Portrait of an Unknown Artist,” featuring Carlson, Burns, Orange and Ostrom’s daughter Jean Montgomery, can be seen at vimeo.com/221374747?ref=em-share