Seattle Opera The Life and Times of MalcolmX McCaw Hall Seattle Washington

House fire inspires coast artist Bill Kucha’s ‘reboot’ from activist to ‘artivist’

The painter, who lost everything in a fire two years ago, will present his performance piece on the Earth and environment Dec. 3 during a Unitarian service in Newport.

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Artist Bill Kucha plays guitar in his old studio in front of two of his paintings, "600 Years" (left) and a panel of “Millennium.“ The paintings were destroyed in a house fire two years ago. Photo courtesy: Bill Kucha
Artist Bill Kucha plays guitar in his old studio in front of two of his paintings, “600 Years” (left) and a panel of “Millennium.“ The paintings were destroyed in a house fire two years ago. Photo courtesy: Bill Kucha

Two years ago, artist Bill Kucha lost everything when the house he shared with his wife, Dorothy, on Cape Foulweather burned in a Halloween fire. All his original artwork, the couple’s possessions, the 40-odd years of sweat and labor Kucha poured into restoring the old house, gone.

But out of that “holy hell of a fire,” came a fresh awareness, a sense of something lost, and now found.

“Before, I had been painting my heart out feeling there isn’t much love in this world,” Kucha said. “Earth is dying, people hungry on the streets.… No one cared. Then the fire came — I’ll tell you, I’ve never been filled with so much love from all over the world. That was a fundamental change in life. I had thought there wasn’t the love that was needed, but there is.”

Kucha is sharing his vision for what the future can be with 600 Years, what he calls a mixed-media “vertical altar in four panels.” He began creating the 8-by-4-foot panels in 2000 to address his concerns about the Earth. The artwork was lost in the fire, but the panels had been professionally photographed. Kucha transferred those images to full-sized reproductions on vinyl that he can roll up and take with him for his “artivist” presentations.

He explained: “I talk about what is happening to our Earth now, and I sing songs I write that go along with it. It’s a little performance piece. For 10 years, I’d been going to Salem to talk to folks about my concerns about the environment. I gave that up; I wasn’t good at it. I got pissed at the politicians. I’ve gone from activist to artivist.”

His next presentation is at 10 a.m. Dec. 3 at the Central Coast Unitarian Universalist Fellowship meeting in the Newport Visual Arts Center. The public is welcome.

After the fire, Kucha used digital photos to re-create "600 Years" on vinyl. He will use the piece, depicting past extinctions, in his presentation Sunday at the Central Coast Unitarian Universalist Fellowship meeting in Newport. Photo courtesy: Bill Kucha
After the fire, Kucha used digital photos to re-create “600 Years” on vinyl. He will use the piece in his presentation Sunday at the Central Coast Unitarian Universalist Fellowship meeting in Newport. Photo courtesy: Bill Kucha

Kucha originally planned to paint 600 Years as one piece, then realized he wouldn’t be able to transport it on his weekly trips to Portland to see his grandkids. His wife suggested he paint it on panels so it would fit in the back of the car.

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Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

600 Years depicts past extinctions of the Earth, including “the comet that hit the Earth and pretty much wiped everything out,” Kucha said. The second of the four panels depicts Earth as it is headed toward extinction now, exacerbated by the burning of fossil fuels. “We are on our way to becoming Mars. The fate of our Earth as it goes through, let’s call it a fever, is to help it out or die with it. It would be a shame if this beautiful thing called Mother Earth disappeared.”

While Kucha continues to paint, it’s no longer for commercial purposes, but “for the universe,” he said. When he’s not painting, he spends his time working in the garden that survived the fire and awaiting the day he and Dorothy can move into their new house this spring.

The old house was built in 1939, largely out of 4-by-4 crates, Kucha said. He dug out the basement. “I was an artist; I was poor and I built on things that were around. They call it a woodbutcher house, but it was a tender thing. People loved it. Everything happened in that house. We got married there, had our son Nick there, got our [burial] plot picked out there and OK’d with the county. This house we’re having built, I’m not pounding one nail.”

Rather, Kucha plans to spend his remaining years enjoying the world around him. “Since the fire, the community really has become important to me, and I’ve become important to them. I feel I am here to bring forth the love that exists, that is hidden. We’re part of an eternal consciousness. I call it enlightenment; it never dies.

“My job is to have a really good time and help people and heal and grow and create and give. I just want to disappear in that. I’ve been meditating since I’m 20. All the stuff I knew just came into focus, into being. It’s a huge thing. My wife called it a rebooting.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pup Gus.

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