Idaho artist never too busy to paint owls

Ralph Bartholdt

SANDPOINT — Ward Tollbom has painted an owl.

It is a small owl and the watercolor paint like barbules stitches the perimeter of the painting.

He says come look, and so I do.

He says this because he has not matted my prints.

It has been weeks.

When I walk into his frame shop on Sandpoint’s First Avenue next to Dann Hall’s studio of exquisite black-and-white photographs that hang alongside a color image Dann shot long ago at the Vancouver Games of a guy with the Go Canada! shirt zipping his pants in the Port-a-Potty complex, Ward says, hey.

He says, they are not finished.

It’s amazing how busy I am, he says.

Ward is 60-something, but looks like a guy in middle age who has spent a lot of time eating fish.

He has that Scandinavian glow, like he dreams sea air and eats sea air and doesn’t care too much about the oil rigs dotting the North Atlantic.

He says, come look, so I do.

It could be a screech owl, or a barred owl or a burrowing owl.

It is meticulously depicted, almost photographic.

I don’t ask which type of owl, because both Ward and I have biology in us, the study of natural things, and I should know the species in my sleep.

Ward attended the University of Idaho, dangling in front of him the idea of a science major, but instead he turned to art.

I got a degree in wild animal science, but followed a chain saw to Alaska, before turning to journalism to earn the bread I wanted to butter.

When he was in Moscow, those many years ago, pursuing a degree in biology and tussling with the idea of being an art major, he longed for the big lake and Selkirk and Cabinet mountains, so he painted them.

“It’s pretty dreary down there,” he says. “Especially in winter with the wheat fields all brown and gray.”

One of the first things he painted after learning perspective and how to pen a field of Palouse wheat, was Sandpoint’s City Beach.

He did it from memory.

And then he painted the barns along the Pend Oreille River.

Also from memory. And the mountains where he and his father chased deer and elk.

His dad was a one-legged grocer. Raised a family that way.

His wooden leg hangs from the wall in Ward’s shop next to the pictures of deer and moose that he and his family killed and ate, and their antler mounts.

When Ward has a lousy day he looks at the leg, the leather straps, the pain of it, he says, and remembers.

“He did it on one leg,” he says. “I can do it on two.”

There’s a fishing lure, too, still packaged, hanging from a nail on a post in his Hen’s Tooth Studio on Sandpoint’s main drag.

It is large, metallic and treble hooked. It is a version of the lure he used to catch the many mackinaws that he and Boots Reynolds hoisted into their boat one day in summer when they decided to take advantage of the weather.

They made more than a hundred bucks apiece on bounty.

“Better than going to work,” Ward said. “Those days are gone, I think.”

In its effort to kill the predators of kokanee, Idaho Fish and Game placed a bounty on lake trout for anglers to collect, paid commercial fishers to harvest them and generally waged an all-out war on the deep-water species.

Killing lake trout would bring the bluebacks back, they surmised. Some anglers considered the plan idiotic, but it seems to have done the trick.

When Ward and Boots chased macks it was in part because Ward wanted to catch a big Kamloops rainbow again. The kind that catapult into the air and wrap line around the outboard and generally whoop it up.

The mackinaw had killed the kokanee which the Kamloops fed on, reducing the population of the magnificent rainbows, also known as Gerrards.

Mackinaws he says, “run deep a few times and shake their head,” before you reel them in. They don’t provide the excitement of a 20-pound Gerrard rainbow.

“Lookit this,” he says, and I admire it.

It is the painting of the owl.

The bird is small, slate gray and barred. Its feathers are almost tactile. The afterfeathers, those downy fluffs near the calamus seem to move in the air of your breath.

Its eyes look into yours.

A sharp beak. The landscape around the bird is silent.

Ward hands it to me and I hold the picture as if it is the owl itself.

I don’t ask what kind of owl he has painted, because it would betray the distance I have laid between my past.

A decade ago, I would have said the owl’s name, but now I no longer have it.

“That’s beautiful,” I say, instead.

Ward is happy.

He doesn’t get to paint often anymore.

“It’s amazing how busy I am,” he says.

I’ll be back later for the matted and framed prints, I tell him.

I want him to have time to paint more owls.

No hurry, I say.

Bartholdt is a reporter at the Coeur d'Alene Press.

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