Sometime in the late 1980s, Seattle artist Ryan Molenkamp found a pamphlet of snapshots of the erupting Mount St. Helens, printed by the Everett Herald and discarded in his house. The power of the images never left him, and in the early 2010s he found his signature subject: volcanos. “We ignore the overwhelming power of mother nature,” he says of the explosions he painted, historic and imagined. He couldn’t.
If May 18 hadn’t been such a sunny day—not so common in socked-in southwest Washington—would we have so many remarkable photos of the eruption, and in turn the art they inspired? Perhaps not. This spring, Portland Art Museum’s Volcano! exhibit opened with a room-sized photo of the St. Helens ash plume, something no one had seen up close before 1980.
The PAM curator chose Molenkamp’s eruption triptych, titled “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” after David Johnston’s famous call, the last words from the scientists before he died in the blast. His mountains are rendered in blocky, colorful pieces like a mosaic, the strata of rock reimagined as brush strokes. “It’s a metaphor of my concerns about the world, and I really am interested in the geology,” says Molenkamp. His pieces sat among paintings of St. Helens’ old triangular form, from as far back as the 1840s, and Native American objects.
Molenkamp’s depictions of Mount Baker and Glacier Peak, based on aerial photography, anchor his personal show scheduled to open at a Pioneer Square gallery this summer (though likely delayed due to Covid-19). Even as he’s moved on to other geologic formations (like ridgelines, the namesake of his show) he still paints volcanoes: “I can’t help it. Not always. But a lot.”
And then there is Ash Glass. One of the most curious creations to come out of Washington's violent geology is a line of delicate household decorations.
It all started when gray dust coated Washington like snow, ash as much as six inches deep. As the rest of the Northwest hauled out their dustpans, Northwest glassblower Rob Adamson experimented, tossing handfuls of the pulverized rock into his furnace that burned as hot as the mountain’s magma interior. The glass he blew was brownish green; on a lark he cut a cylinder into rings and sold them as “ash holes” at his Glass Eye Studio shop in Pike Place Market.
The paperweights, ornaments, and vases he made from (and, crucially, marketed as) Mount St. Helens ash glass sold enough to keep the studio running, cementing Adamson’s place among Northwest glass pioneers. Other makes crafted their own ash glass. The popular practice has largely faded in recent years, but until lately Glass Eye, now in Fremont, put some in every furnace. Not that they've totally run out; the studio and has buckets of donated ash that may appear in special editions.