jenn reidel
Marshall Sohl, Jr. (Island View)

When he tells you the old stories of Vashon-Maury Island, he tells them to you with his eyes closed. Perhaps he sees them played out in his mind’s eye, as he sifts through hundreds of local facts and folk he’s discovered in his research and knows by heart.

Since the 1970s, 82-year-old Marshall Sohl has burned island history into wood storyboards. Many of these golden plaques are adorned with an arc of red, white and blue rays emanating from a sunrise over Mt. Rainier and the words “The Dawn of History on Vashon Maury Isles.”

“Art for history’s sake,” he said.

In January, Vashon Allied Arts celebrates Marshall Sohl in a retrospective of his work at Blue Heron Gallery. Thanks to all the Island collectors who have generously lent their Marshall Sohl storyboards for this month-long exhibition—a unique opportunity to view these works of pyrography created by one of Vashon’s most endearing souls. Sohl also created several new pieces which will be for sale.

Sohl works in his Vashon studio in the woods every day. The windows are open and he has three fans going to keep from breathing in the smoke while burning the words into the plaques. In the winter it is cold. “I have to wear long johns, an overcoat and wool socks,” he says to keep warm while he works. The studio is on the land he bought 40 years ago when he moved his family over from Kirkland.

“I read about acreage on Vashon for $18 down and $18 a month. So I came over on Harlan Rosford’s bus.” The bus only went to Burton so he walked 4-1/2 miles to the land where he would make his home. “Used to pay $9 a year taxes. We were a mile from our nearest neighbor. No power for ten years. No water.” He said he, his wife and eight kids lived in a one-room house. “We had to dig our own well.”

His neighbor, “The Baron” Stauffenberg, who lived across the road and also had five daughters and three sons, would be the one to teach Sohl how to woodburn. Stauffenberg made crosses (“which he sold to the nuns in Ballard”), jewel boxes and grandfather clocks all by hand—no power. Sohl fondly refers to him as his guru.

To woodburn, Sohl uses pyrography tools imported from Germany—needles of different shapes and sizes heated by electricity. There were times when he’d heat a metal rod in a fire to carve the wood frames and his kids would heat nails in coals to help him burn words and imagery into the wood.

It is a long process to burn the Douglas fir frames. The small plaques take him about 300 hours to complete and 500 hours for the larger ones. “I burn myself a lot of times because I fall asleep, but you wake up real quick like,” he laughs.

On the frames, Sohl burns his symbology. “See the crosses and the ‘U’s’ on the frame. This means that you cross over for desire of knowledge or lore.”

By his workbench is a pair of gold-painted boots. The gold paint was no accident. He intentionally painted them and wore them around to make sure the paint was good enough to use on his storyboards.

“The proportion I make my plaques is explained right here.” Sohl opens the book Art Through the Ages, and points to a picture of the Greek Parthenon. Like this masterpiece of the Golden Age, Sohl’s plaques are designed according to the Golden Mean or Divine Ratio.

Along one wall are rows of binders holding his research on the Vashon-Maury Island places and homesteaders. Somehow the old documents detailing the island’s first white settlers ended up in Portland. Sohl traveled there and spent two weeks going through the vaulted information, and in his careful, stylized handwriting wrote down each and every homesteader’s name and claim in a list over two feet long. He also created a map and divided up the island to reflect these pioneer properties. “The first three homesteads on Vashon were signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1864,” he said.

His love of Island history began with visits to the store on Maury Island where Gene Sherman was butcher. “I have a plaque on the Shermans. Christopher Columbus Sherman, Gene’s great grandfather, was one of the original island homesteaders. So I started to talk to Gene. Of course he knew everything, and so I got interested in the island’s stories.” Sohl is one of the five original members of the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Association.

Stacked around are the storyboards. His favorite is one depicting Vashon’s women homesteaders. “See this is Wax Orchard and this is the air field. This is Judd Creek. And this is Lizzie Markham’s homestead. She paid $1.25 an acre. She was buried on Vashon and her epitaph said ‘She did what she could.’ Lizzie was a religious sculptor who made nativity figures out of the blue clay on Vashon.”

Sohl knows the history of the island and has become part of its history as well. He has witnessed countless changes to “our beautiful Vashon Isle” and has many stories of his own which he loves to tell.

Sohl’s favorite memories seem to be around Mrs. Wax. He and family used to work for Mrs. Wax picking cherries and apples for two bits a bucket. “Everyone loved Mrs. Wax.” He remembers once when famed author Betty MacDonald and her daughters came to pick cherries. “Her daughters had short pants on, and Mrs. Wax told them they could not climb the ladders with short pants on. So they had to go home and put long pants on. That was Mrs. Wax.”