It's when he starts telling you about the paintings by the bank robber, the two or three he doesn't have in the gallery, after he's told you about his negotiations with Hustler magazine that fell through, and the movie deals he never quite landed, and his days fishing on the river - it's then that you realize Astoria painter Mike Strom has more tangents than the House of the Seven Gables.

He's a man who's been many things: carpenter, fisherman, writer, painter - although not necessarily in that order, and not all of them successfully, he'll admit. He's lived in many places and done many things, but after all his travels and adventures, he's come back to his boyhood home. In January, he opened Gallery 12, his own painting studio and gallery on 12th Street.

"I want to participate in the growth of Astoria as an artistic Mecca," Strom said.

At 56, he has settled down somewhat, but he is still painting. And his mind, especially when he talks, is still spewing ideas. And he is still something of a bohemian, a mantle he is proud to wear: It shows he's still creating.

Inside his gallery you will find abstract and impressionist renderings of Astoria's waterfront, people and faces, and some scenes of his last anchorage, Port Townsend, Wash. His work is far from what most would consider decorative art, but it will make you think about what it means to be a painter.

He considers himself something of an artistic outsider, even for a town with as small an art establishment as Astoria. And he believes in the positive power of art to change lives, and even the world.

"I think artists owe something to the society that they're born in, because in many ways they are the freest of people," Strom said.

As a child, he attended John Jacob Astor Elementary School, but moved around a lot in his youth as his father's construction company landed different jobs building houses. He later fished in the Columbia River and in Alaska during the 1970s, worked on destroyers in the U.S. Navy in the 1980s, graduated from college, and worked as a carpenter and artist in Port Townsend in the 1990s.

Along the way he ran off to Mexico to be a poet, wrote a novel in Paris, wrote fishing articles for Audubon magazine, and was once asked to join an infamous motorcycle "club" that shall remain nameless.

He was experimenting with different lifestyles. He once worked as a bartender at a commune.

"I always wondered why these people lived these lifestyles," said Strom. "I was living it for the experience to be a good artist."

And he believes Astoria is now alive with art and ideas. He compares it to Port Townsend about 20 years ago. He watched that small, bohemian fishing town on Puget Sound become transformed into a pricey, gentrified destination spot. He thinks it may be a glimpse of what's to come in Astoria. But he hopes this town doesn't lose its creative juices.

He sure hasn't. He may not be the world's most financially successful painter, but is that the point?

"All of the sudden at 2 at night, if you get up and write a poem, and it's driving to get outside of you, and you've got the muse, that's when you know you're an artist," Strom said.

- Patrick Drake


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