“I felt like there was magical energy here,” Aaron Asis said of Fort Worden, which he discovered just last year.
A Centrum Foundation artist in residence, he wanted to give his fellow humans a sense of the fort’s many lives: as S’Klallam land, as a state park, an Army base and a place where children played in the bunkers and forest.
For his installation titled “Fort Words,” Asis delved into hundreds of oral histories collected by the Jefferson County Historical Society. He found people recalling the Spanish flu pandemic, during which Fort Worden was a hot spot; he listened to memories of world wars — and he heard wonder in the voices of those who remember when they first laid eyes on these bluffs and beaches.
The artist then selected 23 quotations. His vision: To stencil them onto the concrete walls of the batteries arrayed across the park. At these structures — each named for a service member — passers-by could stop, read and ponder.
He uses a font and a shade of white to fit the fort’s military past, but some of the remembrances transcend those years by a long way.
“Welcome to our land. Welcome to Kah-Tai. We are grateful for our land,” reads a quotation painted on the south face of Battery Brannan, not far from the fort’s Powerhouse Trail. It comes from Loni Greninger, a member of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, which was nourished by this homeland some 10,000 years ago.
One after another, the short passages, on exterior walls or hidden in rooms, catch the eye of the person walking by.
“I was only 8 but … even in school we were required to wear cotton masks over our face,” is Harold Brown’s recollection of the flu pandemic of 1918.
Asis stenciled the words inside Battery Benson’s hoist room.
“We only had 5 months of school because all the other months had the flu and school was closed,” Josephine Yarr recalled in her oral history.
Her words appear inside Battery Tolles, near the Bluff Trail.
Others call to mind the beauty of this place, with its coexisting nature and architecture — still in all its glory during these waning weeks of summer.
“I fell in love with the undergrowth in the forest, the ferns and landscape are beautiful,” Lucille Reinen’s oral history recalls. Her memory is written on Battery Walker, while Bayly Miller’s are seen on Battery Quarels: “I never went inside the structures but the place was so fascinating, like you discovered Machu Picchu.”
Asis, who’s based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and travels the country creating art installations, had a full slate of entities to deal with when embarking on this project. Washington State Parks, the Friends of Fort Worden, the Fort Worden Public Development Authority and Centrum all partook in the planning.
As it turned out, Asis stenciled some quotations over spots that already had been painted over to cover old graffiti. The state parks crew does this ongoing work. The paint colors, rusted doors and smooth gray walls make a multi-textured collage.
Each set of Fort Words stands alone. And while maps and information are available at the Fort Worden gift shop, Asis invites people to create their own experience, with or without a lot of data.
He’s working on a website, FortWords.com, to go online later this month. Yet he wants each viewer to feel free to draw her or his own meaning from these passages. To a reporter, the installation feels like a scavenger hunt through art, history, trees and sky.
Asis’ favorite words come from someone who lived at the fort during the transition from war to peacetime.
“Now that the armistice is signed, what happens to us? There are more rumors flying around than ever before,” reads the quotation, which the artist stenciled onto Battery Ash’s wall a few days ago. This reminds him of now, Asis said: We’re in the midst of big changes, questions abundant in the air.
“I think his project is really quite groundbreaking,” said Jefferson County Historical Society executive director Shelly Leavens. She marveled at how, despite the coronavirus pandemic’s halting of many Centrum programs, “he continued to move forward and pull it off.”
The original plan was to have Fort Words complete in June, in time for public tours. A crew was supposed to help Asis prepare the walls and do the spray-painting and cleanup. COVID-19 stalled all that; the artist persisted.
Last week, he alone stenciled the passages on 23 sites on and around the fort’s Artillery Hill. The installation has a two-month permit to expire Oct. 31, and unless an extension is approved, Asis will then paint over the words, returning the batteries to their pre-project state.
Due to the pandemic effect on Centrum programs, there won’t be organized tours. To Asis, that’s not such a bad thing. With fall coming, people can soak up the quiet, wander at their own pace, and perhaps imagine what their own memories could be one day inscribed on these walls.
Centrum’s Michelle Hagewood is another fan impressed by Asis’ idea.
Fort Words “is kind of perfect,” she said, “for the moment we’re in.”
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.