Painter’s Way

I have written before about the Oregon Country Fair, but I haven’t written much about the PEOPLE. The community of gentle, wonderful people that make the thing possible. It’s a large group of people I feel deeply connected to, although I’ve only had the pleasure of their company a scant 5 years (and really, 3 of those were by proxy.)

I suppose that isn’t a long time, but something wonderful happens when you spend 170 consecutive hours with folks, shouldering the heavy burden that the recyclables are — sliding through the mud, directing a fleet of ancient trucks, repairing those trucks, watching the trucks slide into the mud, lifting things, laying hands on every single piece of glass, plastic and aluminum — both returnable and not — that is thrown into barrels (and NOT thrown into barrels, thank you very much.) We call the people who work at OCF “family”, because it’s completely how it feels. Sleep deprivation, filth, discomfort, giving comfort, laughs, food, tears, etc — it all leads to an incredible bond.

We call our elders…”elders”, because it is respectful and because it is a nod to cultures who treat age with a respect that is sometimes lost in the youth-obsessed mainstream. One of our elders began to rapidly lose his battle with cancer recently. We had been kept abreast of events to keep in our thoughts –treatments, chemotherapy, analysis, waiting, accepting.

When further treatments were proposed he opted not to deny the inevitable but rather to embrace it. He did so in a way I have never seen anyone do, but in a way that I want to be a model for my own life, should such be my lot.

Through the listserv and Facebook, it was announced that Mr. Painter would be having a farewell send-off. A celebration of life.


The local core members — along with the family — mobilized as only they know how. People were called. Roles were assigned. camping-canopies were dug out of garages, outdoor heaters were found, as were an army of mix-match plastic chairs — as the house could only accommodate so many. And the prospective visiting list was over 200 strong. Casseroles were made. A sign up sheet was made, so each person who wanted one could have their moment.

I have often had examples of how to live, but this was the first I’d really had of how to die. It was the most simple thing, yet the most profound thing.

Pictures began to pop up on the Facebook group, and the look in the man’s eyes is something I find difficult to describe, for it is something I haven’t seen before. The earnest, joyful face of a man who is having it his own way, fading peacefully at home, surrounded by a sea of loved ones. Young and old, time-worn and new, everyone who could make it did.

From his recliner in the center of the room, bolstered by pillows and warmed by a crocheted blanket someone had made, again and again his pure, open face of surprise, delight, at each new familiar face (and perhaps even some less familiar ones, still offering joy, still offering gratitude for having known him, spoken with him). Here a person kneeling in front of him, leaning in. There a person sitting on a stool laughing with him. There a person showing him a collage they put together, or a painting they painted in his honor. Each holding his hand — save the crew member who skyped in from Japan.

We are not as close to him as many are, and we opted to let those who needed it have their time. But I have been following it all on Facebook because it is beautiful, and makes me swell with gratitude that I know such decent, wonderful people.




Visiting hours closed over the weekend, but for a week after the goodbye party updates ripples of warmth and beauty continued to surge through my feed. Pictures from when he was young. Pictures of people visiting with him. Pictures of flowers. Messages from crew members. More casseroles. A recipe for a depression-era raison cake that was a favorite of his. Updates about the man himself, so many including the words, “he is lucid, happy, and pain-free.” One update described how he woke to see the sunrise , and expressed his wish to be reborn as a night-blooming cactus.

He breathed his last Feb 2 — almost two years after he shared his diagnosis with us. At that time he said that, untreated, the doctors gave him four months. He opted for treatment so he could go on his own terms.

What a note to leave on. We should all be so lucky to have the grace to recognize the end when we see it, and to greet it surrounding by flowers, love, and smiling faces.

OCF: Recycle Crew

Monday mornings are marked at Chez Kumquat by the recycling truck’s arrival. There’s a lot of truck noises as it maneuvers in between our building and the parked cars, and then a tremendous crash as the items in the blue bins get hoisted then dumped into the truck — particularly the glass, which is a bright, unmistakable sound.

It’s the same sound one hears in the early morning at the Oregon Country Fair. The recycling crew starts collecting from kiosks at six in the morning, but they usually don’t make it back to the dock until the public begins to arrive. The first trickle of people at nine increases to a steady stream by eleven, and all the while that familiar sound of glass crashing can be heard echoing through the trees.

Because it’s the same sound I think people assume that a machine is doing all the work, despite the rustic nature of the fairgrounds. It’s what that sound makes us think of. There’s nothing in that sound to suggest otherwise. I think they picture big truck lifters, conveyors, and automated sorting by weight. Neat boxes ready for the reprocessing center.

But don’t you believe it.

What sounds like objects heading to a sorting-machine on a conveyor is in fact two people dumping a barrel full of cans, glass and plastic bottles onto a slanted grid. This grid sits over a channel, designed to catch all the wet and broken debris. (That’s the idea anyway.) This great pile is then pushed with a rake towards the waiting arms of the sorters, who stand along the sides of wooden chutes. And, armed with not much else besides earplugs and eyeglasses, the sorters pick through the mess and sort everything, one by one.

It’s a lot of material to go through. Material that has been sloshing around with leftover contents and whatever else ends up in the barrels. Soon the dock itself is covered in a wet sheen of “sloosh”, and it is for this reason sorters are outfitted with aprons, to keep at least some of it at bay. (Honestly I found working in a raincoat to be the most successful.)

Each recyclable is sorted according to different rules. Cans are sorted by size, roughly, and until you memorize which cans are redeemable and which are not, you must read those little letters on the side of each and every can. Glass is sorted by size: one box for this size, one box for that, a special box for sessions and a special box for corona and other tall Mexican style bottles. These boxes, when full, are closed up and handed off to the people standing up on the dock, who load them into the great big truck bed, to be hauled away at the end of the week.

All this while the surge of cans and glass is pushed towards you. More and more all the time. If you do not help and push the pile down the line things get backed up and crash to the floor, or roll under the dock to the dark inaccessible places — later to be picked up by diligent individuals with buckets. 

Meanwhile, plastics are sorted on the other end of the dock. Plastics are the least uniform and most incomprehensible of the sorted items. Sorted mostly by size (which is difficult to judge at a glance, for all the different shapes), but always driven by whether it is redeemable or not. Just about everything aside from plastic water bottles and soda bottles are not redeemable, with a few maddening exceptions. And until you’ve a sense for it, each item must be examined. And then thrown to the appropriate bag. 

Aside from a few dedicated souls there is no specific crew for sorting. Everyone takes a turn. As each truck backs towards the dock, members of the truck’s team hop out to either dump barrels, rake things, or don glasses and earplugs and take their place in the sort line and get to work.

It is the most chaotic, effective little operation I have ever experienced. In a way it’s a nice demonstration of how the entire fair works. Very analogue. We may have several powerstrips at the dock for cell phones — and many of those are future-phones — but all the real work is done the old fashioned way. With hands and arms and good music and camaraderie.

OCF: Moments

I often embellish things to make them look a little more amazing, but this is absolutely a true story. It’s a little more subdued actually, since I think he was also wearing cat’s eye sunglasses, and you also do not see the rest of the crew with buckets scanning the ground for cigarette butts. I hasten to add that the truck was not moving when he did this, he was just waiting for the driver to get back and move the truck closer to the kiosk. 

In the mornings the various truck crews went to service the various kiosks throughout the fairgrounds. This means rolling full barrels to the truck, lifting the barrels up onto the truck bed, and handing off empty barrels to waiting arms (or, more often, yelling BARREL DOWN as you drop on over the side, with a satisfying gooong) to replace the full barrels. Taking inventory. Make any changes (do we need another cans & glass barrel out here?) Then for the main stages the crew gets buckets and combs the field for trash. Cigarette butts, bottle cabs, paper fragments, and even — gulp — condoms. 

I forget the exact number of trucks-and-crews we had, but it must have been something like fifteen. Certain routes were so full that they were broken down into types of refuse: compost on one truck, paper, cans and glass on another. Shifts started at six in the morning and sometimes wouldn’t finish until eleven. 

While they did this I wandered the fairgrounds in awe of the birdsong and relative silence. One delicious morning though I was sitting in the meadow at the far east of the property. It’s a high-traffic area, and that morning it was also occupied by a lot of sloppy still-drunk vendors or crew people easing themselves into the new day. Their rhythm was stilted and unstable. Uncertain. 

So it was a treat to watch Ceder’s truck, Mothra come trundling into the field. Mothra is one of many ancient trucks the recycling crew uses to cart barrels. It takes its cue from the 1920’s and is a flatbed truck with wooden boards nailed to the sides to accommodate loads. I am fairly vague here in the painting but that’s becuase I can’t remember the make and model of the truck itself, and I didn’t spend much time with the trucks. And there aren’t many pictures online. The public really likes Godzilla, because it has toys on it and breathes fire, but there are many other trucks. Mothra is one of them.

You know a recycling crew truck (or forklift) right away because it has a lot of gloved people hanging off of it. And as soon as it stops the occupants hop off smartly and get to work. They were such a wonderful sight, and probably a really strange pill to swallow for the bleary-eyed non-recyclers in the field. It made me proud. Yes, we are unkept and have a really ragtaggle band of workers. But by God we can get stuff done. 


1. During the first meal I had at the staff kitchen we ended up at a bench with a great loose board on the top. Fortunately we were sitting with members of construction crew, and they fixed the thing right there on the spot.

2. Despite the relative chaos of the thing I only lost two things. The biggest loss were my beloved yoga/PJ pants. They weren’t particularly grand — in fact they were bought after I’d forgotten mine on the move to Portland (silly chilly AC filled hotel rooms.) They were made of an organic bamboo-rendered jersey knit but purchased from Wal-Mart. I’d cut off about 5 inches from the bottom so they were hobbit-pants, unhemmed so they were a bit ragged, had bleach speckles on them from that one time I cleaned that one house, so they really wouldn’t look like anything much to anyone but me. I should have written my name in them — really I just should have done what sensible people do and checked in with lost and found. But instead I lamented, and then resolved to make some new ones. I know they’ve got similar knits at the fabric store. 

2a. The other lost thing was a towel, and we replaced that on the way home. Bath Towels is bath towels. 

3. I keep mentioning that being around the recycling crew was a bit like hanging around the muppets, and I’m not lying. For a start, stuff like this guy hula-hooping on the hood of the truck kept happening. But in other ways also:

3a. The crew is not just for those strong enough to lift full barrels (really, no one person can do that. It takes two.) There are many different people-shapes, and people-types in the family. Crews were not really organized as such, but there were some trends. The delicate smallest ones (particularly those on “teen crew”) tended to be the extras pulled in during the glass and plastic sorts when the trucks came back to the dock. Big beefy people tended to work at compost or on other non-truck-crew projects like fixing trucks or building things. And the biggest one of all — an Amazonian with a knee brace — was the lady who took everything we sorted in boxes and packed the trucks that went to the redeem-the-recyclables places at the end of the week. 

3b. The weird collection of dilapidated trucks, which were often painted and made awesome.

3c. We had a house band. Or what amounts to one. A member of the Conjugal Visitors was a friend-of-someone’s, and so they were there at our first night of camping, and then again at the cocktail party, and then again for a different non-party fireside night, and THEN at the week-after party at someone’s house. Whenever we were together and not working, they seemed to be there. It was lovely. Good high-energy bluegrassy stuff. 

3d. The fierce loyalty and sense of “all for one and one for all” that I’ve never, ever seen so strong in a group.

4. There was a spider in the tent, and he was clever clever. Our tent is a minimalist sort of affair, a new take on the old-school pup tent. It’s basically a tarp-shelter with a little floor. The floor and ceiling are separate elements. Condensation drips down onto the ground outside keeping the floor and interior dry. Genius. Only drawback is it basically acts like a bug trap. We usually have a cloud of things flying around in the top, but you know. You’re camping. So who cares. Though in future we may rent to a spider on purpose, because the cloud of bugs was significantly, immediately diminished when the spider moved in. The few that remained cowered on the far side and did not make much trouble.


OCF: Scaffolding

Fair. What can I say? It’s magic. And everybody says that. So what can I say that other people haven’t?

Well, as a picture maker I can say this: it was a sweet, blessed relief to be in a world that understands the need for whimsy. From the admission gates made to look like the heads of dragons to the simple shapes set up near the bank of the Long Tom River, aesthetic playfulness was there at every turn.

It was good to see playfulness. To see giant stars made of kite material lit up at night and in the early morning by Christmas lights. To see a bench surrounded by a wicker creature. To see people walking around in tree costumes. It seemed no visual field was left unadorned. Even the recycling kiosks were all distinct and interesting. There’s a kind of acknowledgement of the spiritual there — and I don’t mean just the knee-jerk hippie woo-woo kind of spiritual. I just mean that hunger for colors and shapes that we recognize in children. Grown-ups have that hunger too — and probably need it even more than children do, in the face of their busy, messy lives. But rarely does one see it in quite the way one saw it at Fair, and it was lovely to behold.

I know a lot of people see Fair as a throw-back to Woodstock, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that. I don’t think it would have endured this long if it was just about a lot of burnt out hippies. All the pieces fit too neatly together. The dust gets bad, so there is a water crew that keeps the road sprayed down. There are barrels of water around for the vendors to attend to their own paths. There is a fanatical commitment to using every resource and not over consuming, so there is a truck that picks up wood — old timbers, usable sticks — and takes it to what is essentially a giant filing cabinet near the compost barn to sort them out. There are shelves for every kind of thing they find. So when the construction crew needs to build a new vendor-space, or fence, or recycling kiosk, the wood is ready and waiting. When de-construction pulls the extra things back at the end of the week, (the traffic control chairs, the extra fences, the sign posts) the wood goes back to the filing cabinet. Ready and waiting for next year.

I’m not ready to be back in civilization. It took me a few days to really click into the rhythm of the place — it’s so different from regular life. Now that I’m there it’s hard for me to click back out. I sort of hope I don’t, actually. I’ve not felt so calm and wonderful in a long time. I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary, it’s just what happens when you are around a group of people that assume the best of everyone.

Oregon Country Fair!

For the past two years Anthony has had the privilege of working on the recycling crew at the Oregon Country Fair, and this will be the first year I will get to join him.

“Getting” to work a volunteer position that routinely means lifting barrels of waste onto the back of a truck, climbing on rusty cylinders and (as it did last weekend) dumping out foul-smelling food remnants into a pile of slimy goo may not seem like a privilege to most people. But idle hands are the devil’s play-thing, and apart from that working hard for a few hours a day means we’ll have the sort of experience at a fair that only those back stage can have. Twenty-four hour access, camping for a week, hanging out with a downright muppety group of hippies, outlaws, refugees and pirates. Good stuff for an illustrator.

So far I’ve only been privy to “pre-Fair”, and even that has been a treat. The OCF has been going on for forty-two years, and we live in an area where severe weather is rare, so most of the booths are permanent (or semi-permanent) structures built out of scrap timber; as aged and weathered as the trees themselves. It reminds me of my elementary school’s playground, which was made of logs bolted together to make climbable pyramids and balance beams. Before the OCF booth-ers arrive to set up shop the forest appears to host some sort of elven ghost town. Empty scaffolding, stairs, and lofts hint deliciously at what was (and will be) there come next week. So many wonderful lines.

When I was last there I didn’t have time to sit with my drawing board, but I hope to this coming weekend. I am wrapping myself up in a tight curl, pushing out the very, very last pictures for the big Cyborg Anthropology book, and I hope to be finished by the time we leave for the week. I think the fair would be a wonderful pallet cleanser.