PENINSULA WOMAN: Sara Mall Johani unveils new gallery on Port Townsend Studio Tour

CHIMACUM — Sara Mall Johani and her husband, Tom Jay, make their home in the deepest woods, so when you visit — as art lovers may soon — you feel like you’re peeking into a secret lair.

Creatures of forest and river greet you, naturally. Jay’s enormous plaster salmon rises out of the ground outside the shop, and inside, a “Soul Salmon,” big as a shark, stands near the door of yet another secluded space: the Lateral Line Gallery.

The gallery is a warmly lighted display room, set like a jewel in Johani and Jay’s dusty, garage-like workshop. Johani affectionately calls it “the diamond in the ash,” and is eager to invite people in during the Art Port Townsend Studio Tour this Saturday, Aug. 21 and Sunday, Aug. 22.

The gallery is a thicket of Johani’s flights of fancy: bronze women, fish and frogs frolicking; “Mother Lode,” a big, bronze toad; a velvet-finned “sofa salmon” pillow; a necklace that looks like a Fourth of July fireworks display; and a giant alevin — newly hatched — salmon.

Johani has been sculpting since she was a girl fashioning horses from clay. Today, she works in bronze, and her creations are still imbued with joy.

Take “Flying Fillies,” the sculpture in the Northwind Arts Center in Port Townsend’s Studio Tour preview. The image is of a young woman flying alongside her horse, “mounted on the wind,” in Johani’s words.

Inside the Lateral Line Gallery, meanwhile, is another young woman, riding on the back of a rhinoceros. That bronze animal, the sculptor said, is a metaphor for the woman’s primal force, and this piece is just one in a series about getting in touch with that power.

The series includes a sculpture of the woman hopping onto the rhino’s back, one of her finding her balance and another of her trusting the rhino enough to lean back and let her hair fly.

Johani, at 64, has long been in touch with such primal energy. Born in Sweden to an Estonian family, she went to Ontario, Canada, to study art, then taught for just a year there until she knew she wasn’t cut out for the classroom.

She pursued her own art, moving to Washington state in the early 1970s and meeting Jay the day she brought a sculpture to the foundry where he was working.

“He invited me to pour bronze, but I said, ‘Oh, no, I can’t do that,'” she recalled.

Then she thought again, and realized: “Of course I could do it.”

In 1980, four years after they married, Jay and Johani had a son, Dru. Shortly before his first birthday, “I had this feeling: I had to sculpt a salmon,” Johani remembered. “I thought, ‘What is this place about?'”

To her the salmon, “this sleek being, that’s power under the water,” is the totem species of the Olympic Peninsula.

Johani went on to make 100 “Soul Salmon,” outsize fiberglass fish, each adorned with a distinct design. The sculptures were purchased by individuals and organizations and were installed as public art across the Pacific Northwest, from Port Hadlock to Tacoma to Vancouver, B.C.

That Soul Salmon in Jay and Johani’s workshop, a fierce male coho, has come home after several years on display at the state Department of Ecology in Olympia.

Johani is also the creator of the Tracking the Dragon trading cards, a game and puzzle designed to introduce young people to Jefferson County’s waterways and wild things. The artist, looking at a map, saw that the watershed is shaped like a dragon — and that was plenty to inspire her. Dru was about 10 years old, a good age for the cards, when she invented them.

Then the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority adopted and funded distribution of the game, and it later inspired a similar project, Tracking the Thunderbird, in Kitsap County.

Now Dru is 30 and a journalist and Web designer in Montreal, Quebec — and his mother is finding new ways to connect art and community.

She’s made a plan for the next 10 years to create a small bronze sculpture of Galatea, the sea nymph whose image graces the Haller Fountain in Port Townsend.

Each year Johani will make and give a new statuette, which she calls an Oscarette, to the Port Townsend Film Festival to do with as it pleases.

“It was a gift that the idea came,” Johani said, so it makes sense to give away the work of art.

Film festival executive director Janette Force, meanwhile, is marveling at Johani’s gifts. The artist dreamed up the Galatea prize some years ago, Force added, with her friend, Peter Simpson, the late artistic director of the Port Townsend Film Festival.

Simpson died of a heart attack in April 2009 at age 74.

Then, not long ago, “Sara showed up at my office,” said Force, “and she unveiled the most beautiful Galatea,” the 9-inch-tall prototype for 10 sculptures to come.

“We will present [Galatea] to an individual, organization or film that embodies that spirit of what we intend here,” said Force.

The film festival, she said, is about bringing passionate audiences together with impassioned cinematic storytellers.

Johani, for her part, is looking forward to pouring the bronze for the first Galatea at noon Sunday, Aug. 22.

“She’s going to be born during the Studio Tour,” the sculptor promised.

When finished, “she’ll be standing on a reel of film.”

This kind of art is “playful and fun for me,” Johani added. So is beadwork, which she does while watching movies.

She and Jay are also the makers of monumental sculptures, such as the larger-than-life statue of the late Harvey Manning commissioned last year by the Issaquah Alps Trail Club.

Manning’s passion was wilderness, and he helped establish North Cascades National Park as well as Cougar Mountain Regional Park.

That Johani and her husband continue to make a living as sculptors is “incredible,” she said. “We are so grateful.”

And now that Dru is on his own, “this is like a bonus time.”

During studio tour weekend, visitors will see Johani and Jay melt bronze and pour it into molds.

“They’ll get a taste of what it is: a lot of hard work,” Johani said.

Like the 37 other studios on the tour, the Lateral Line Gallery will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. next Saturday and Sunday.

Other details await at www.TheLateralLine.com, and at the Northwind Arts Center, 2409 Jefferson St., in Port Townsend. Admission to all stops on the Studio Tour is free.

Force, for one, didn’t hide her delight that Jay and Johani are opening their tiny gallery to the public.

“Knowing Sara and Tom,” she said, “is like knowing a secret.”

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