It Was Time

by Cathy Adams Taylor

It was time. Time to find my father’s salmon sculpture carved out of cedar wood in the black hole of my garage. Well, at least it’s safe and dry, I told myself, struggling with the guilt of procrastination. But now my excuses were just that, and it was time to dig it out from all the other belongings of two estates that were piled into my garage. I wondered if my hesitation about working on my dad’s carving was raw grief, having recently faced the recent loss of his precious life. My housemate lifted the 75-pound wood salmon and placed it in our spacious downstairs guest room. I stared at it for a few weeks, wondering why my dad had slapped a coat of dark brown paint over this particular salmon sculpture, or was it a stain? It looked like a huge piece of dark chocolate. I needed expert advice so I had my neighbor come down to my house and look at it. Bill refinished old cedar canoe paddles and I knew he’d lead me right. He told me to take one of the broken fins down to Daly’s, a paint/stain store in downtown Seattle, and seek their expertise.

A few more months went by and I strolled into the store with my many questions: Is it covered in paint or stain? Can it be stripped? Can I do it? What can be done? The salesperson gladly informed me that it was an oil-based paint, and then added, “Yes, it can be stripped. But the chemicals used are caustic and produce a huge mess. Are you sure you want to do this job?”

Al Adams (father, artist, HCSEG founder)

“Of course, I’m not sure,” I replied. “I’m a nervous wreck about finishing such a fragile piece!” She handed me a list of wood-refinishers their store recommended. I took it home and started calling around. The first man I talked with was not interested in working on a sculpture. The second man, Brad, seemed open, but wanted to see a picture of the piece. I sent an iPhone shot of the chocolate-brown salmon with yellow eyes, and Brad called back saying he wanted to take on the challenge. His skill was refinishing old world Seattle homes and antiques back to their original stained wood glory. We arranged to do the job at my home downstairs so I could see the whole process.

When Brad saw my dad’s salmon sculpture, his first question was, “Why did he cover this wood carving with this dark brown paint?”

“None of my family knows why,” I said. “But in my thinking, the carving had gotten so weathered out in the elements near the salt water on Hood Canal that he wanted to protect it. Old wood in the Pacific Northwest grows mold in every color of the rainbow, so it must have been that.”

“Well, here it goes!” Brad exclaimed as he opened his box of intricate tools and special chemicals and solutions. “We’ll see what’s underneath soon enough.” 


Old wood in the Pacific Northwest grows mold in every color of the rainbow…

Brad spent three full days stripping and scraping, while layers of brown, dark green, and red ooze slowly dripped from the ancient wood. Then four more days were spent sanding, wiping, sanding, and vacuuming off the fine wood dust. The even tones of the wood emerged once again. The lovely ancient grain was slowly revealed. “Cathy, look at the detail of these fins! The gills, this tail! See how the grain of the wood looks like fish scales. This carving is incredible,” Brad exclaimed. He took one of my dad’s old dental tools and scraped out the old paint and glue from the fine grooves.

Then came the decision of what color stain to use. I chose a light golden stain for the first layer. It looked good but was lacking somehow. We then chose another darker, reddish, golden-brown stain to give it more depth and bring out the grain of the cedar. That was all it needed! It was the perfect choice, and when I saw the effect of the second layer of stain in bringing out that ancient grain, the special uniqueness of my dad’s work of art was unexpectedly realized. Sitting on my stool, I stared at the incredible beauty of this carving from a 700-year-old cedar, mesmerized. I had no inkling it would turn out this beautiful. This carving had become a fine piece of art that needed to be seen by more people than a few friends or family. I wanted to share this special piece with my entire hometown of Seattle! I named it, “The Return of the Kenai King.”

…I stared at the incredible beauty of this carving from a 700-year-old cedar, mesmerized.

 After contacting a local art museum and the large Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), in downtown Seattle, I got an email from the MOHAI curator, Kristin. She requested pictures and for more information about my father. “Was he a Pacific Northwest artist? What was his story?” she asked. I quickly wrote up a paragraph bio explaining how he had founded the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, establishing the PNW Salmon Center in Belfair, and sent more iPhone pictures.

The next week, I received a request for more high-quality pictures and the back-story about why my dad carved salmon. What was his connection to the history of Seattle? Kristin found my dad’s story fascinating and wanted to present my donation to her curatorial team. My daughter-in-law, Anna, came over to take pictures with her professional camera, and we sent those and a newspaper article highlighting my father’s passion to preserve the Pacific Northwest wild salmon habitat in our rivers. During this time early one morning, I heard a still, small voice whisper in my ear, “I am going to do something very sweet for you.” I wondered what that word could mean, and dismissed it from my mind, not wanting to get my hopes up too high.

I waited two more weeks, wondering if they were seriously interested after all. I wanted this dream to come true, displaying my father’s passion for the cause of PNW Salmon for thousands to see and read about. Then, I received this email from Kristin: “Thank you for sending these additional photos and article. Our curatorial team has decided to accept this carving into the MOHAI collection!” I broke down weeping with tears of grateful amazement.

Al Adams with “The Return of the Kenai King”

My dad’s cedar salmon carving will be a museum piece where 300,000 yearly visitors will see it preserved safely behind glass! Underneath the layers of this once dingy, dirty wood sculpture there was an exceptional piece of art. Now others get to ooh and ahh over the incredible vision my father had when he sculpted a 5-foot long salmon out of an ancient fallen red cedar from the Olympic Peninsula. Oh, if my dad could only see this great achievement of his! My brother, Brian, and sister, Cami, are thrilled with the honor of donating my father’s cedar carving.

I asked Kristin how long they would retain my dad’s King Salmon. She replied, “For forever. We are so excited to tell your father’s story!”

Cathy Adams Taylor with the restored “The Return of the Kenai King”