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In a letter to his mother, Blenda, dated December 5, 1928, Widforss referred to painting the harbor and old houses in Oakland. The improvised community of houseboats and "arks," as they were referred to, was home to artists, musicians, and bohemians in general. Aerial photograph shows the approximate location in the Oakland Estuary.
Excerpted from ARTIST TELLS OF LIFE IN ARK DWELLER’ COLONY by Kathryn Eshleman, Oakland Post-Enquirer, October 8, 1932
There is at least one of everything in his Ark, which is numbered, for the convenience of the city directory: Ark number Four. The little cottages in the colony number off from the left, as you face them with the wash of the tide sounding behind you; from the Bay Farm Island bridge, where sits enthroned the mayor of the community– Mayor-by-courtesy Harry Young, bridge tender.
You enter Ark No. 4 over a long and , narrow, somewhat unsteady boardwalk, built over the loose sand and the ropy-rooted brush, The ark, itself tips above the shallow surf, and a rowboat bobs at its back door.
HOME OF ARTIST
This is the home of Otto Riehl, artist, philosopher, individualist. The pride of his heart and the showplace of the colony is his “garden” which looms in old nail kegs on a porch above the water, the heat of the sun kept away by a canopy of patched pieces of old sail. Zinnias and asters entirely enclose it, and the walls are trellised wood.
The inscriptions were penciled verse or paragraphs, in the way of an autograph album, and signed with names well known or having a familiar ring: Charles and Ormaida Keeler, William Nauns Ricks, Kenneth Anderson.
As he worked, Riehl talked about the "colony," and the "Arks" that mean freedom to the men who live in them. With self-confidence be talked about his own work. He dismissed his, training with a wave of the hand, preferring to dwell on his individualistic departures from it. "Yes, I studied at the California School of Arts and Crafts, and at the Mark Hopkins School of Art, at that time, (1906) affiliated with the University of California. My father was Dr. Frederick Riehl of Alameda. Until two years ago I had a studio in Oakland, but this–this is the life! This is a paradise for painters here.”
He described the gypsy life of his neighbors:
"Most of us are notable in some way or another. There's George Jennings–only everyone knows him as 'Pot-Shot'–the, best duck shooter on the bay. The oldest inhabitant is Martin Olson, he's a character, He’s lived here 57 years. What does he do–oh he just sits. And sometimes he sits and smokes his pipe. And there's Harry Young, our mayor! He's the bridge tender, officially, but for us he's the Mayor and keeper of the library, where we go to borrow books.''
Not necessity, but choice, has brought the colonists to the row of Arks an the beach. And they are very conscious of their good fortune and try to help others, in the manner of more conventional communities,
Riehl explained: "We have a 'Good Fellowship' club, which meets here, at my place, once a month. Kenneth Anderson is a committee of one, to go to the Plaza, or wherever he, thinks he can find someone down on his luck, and bring him here. Then he is our guest at a banquet. Philosophers, wayside minstrels, and writers are always welcome to rest and drink deeply of the inspiration the beach gives."
On the door at the back end of the board-walk, at the entrance to the garden is Riehl’s armorial plate, which he says is the keynote of his existence. And in its brilliant cobalt and orange somewhat dimmed by the mists from the marshes and the sea, it says: “Happy is the man who can forget what he cannot remedy.”
One of those places created spontaneously by the iconoclasts, the seekers after freedom from order and convention, the “Colony of Ark Dwellers” is Greater Oakland’s Telegraph Hill, its Greenwich Village.
For paintings from the same location by Widforss' friend Albert DeRome see Oakland Harbor (9005) and Oakland Harbor (9006).
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