He Couldn’t Refuse a Deathbed Plea. Now He’s Got 10,000 Pieces of Art.
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Seven words. That’s how it started. “Can you take care of the collection?”
As Arvi Ostrom lay dying more than 20 years ago, he made that request of his grandson Ken Carlson.
Mr. Carlson immediately said yes, of course, even though he really had no idea of the magnitude of the commitment. Mr. Ostrom had been a mostly self-taught artist, and his grandson figured that “the collection” might add up to a hundred or so sketches and paintings. In any case, he said, you don’t deny the last wishes of a grandfather you love.
But art and family are complicated subjects. And only when they’re combined, and the art — as Mr. Carlson found to his shock — comes in giant piles, do you start to understand what kind of burden can unfold from a simple promise.
Over the course of more than 70 years, starting in the 1920s through his final days at age 91, Mr. Ostrom produced about 10,000 drawings, paintings and wooden sculptures. Whimsical cartoons of tough guys, clenching cigarettes in steel-trap jaws. Portraits of sad-eyed people who might have been patrons at the Snug Harbor, the bar Mr. Ostrom ran in Astoria, Ore. Haunting images of ghost ships sailing off into the Pacific, laced in shadow and gloom. He let his imagination roam the world as he sketched in the quiet hours beside the cash register or at home.
Leaving the collection to Mr. Carlson — no one else in the family wanted it — created its own questions. He looked into publishing a family book about Arvi’s art, or buying back the building that had housed the Snug Harbor to open a cafe, or a little museum, but the plans all foundered. And every year that no answer was found raised Mr. Carlson’s worry that the promise had been too much.
Mr. Ostrom’s art was simple in its goals, lacking the grander message that art buyers and critics look for. No major museum or local gallery is likely to beckon. Years ago, an appraiser had come to look and figured the collection might be worth $10 a piece as folk art. But selling the work was never part of Mr. Carlson’s plan anyway, nor has he ever tried to sell it. This wasn’t high art, but that wasn’t really the point. This was about a family relationship across generations, the weight of old promises that can keep you awake at night and, perhaps most of all, the mystery of a creative impulse quietly, relentlessly sustained.
“I had to honor him and his commitment, that he just kept at it,” said Mr. Carlson, who is 59 and a musician, carpenter and music teacher. “Arvi didn’t give up, and I couldn’t either.”
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