Bernie Webber gently adjusts his eyeglasses and presses his large hands together before explaining why there are so many smokestacks on his latest painting.
"All that smoke you see there . . . well that was dad bringing home the bacon," Webber said. "That was people at work at all the paper mills."
At 69, Webber has outlived plenty of smokestacks and paper mills in Snohomish County.
He is a living history book, the pages filled with colorful pictures of a county long ago. But don't call him a historian.
Bernie Webber is an artist.
Webber has chosen the paint brush to capture Snohomish County's past. It is a short, vibrant history that gets a new layer every day, he said. Everything changes so quickly, like a salmon coming back to a river that could be gone.
So Webber is left to paint that river, the mansion that stood for a century before giving way to a shopping mall; the highway that was built on farm land; the smokestack that sent its last puff, fading in the sky along with hundreds of jobs and a way of life that will never return.
"In months, in weeks, in days, it is gone. Snohomish County is changing overnight," Webber said.
Webber sometimes laughs at it all. The county's history, after all, covers a mere 100 years. A pittance by most standards.
Which is why he never forgets to include a totem pole or other elements of Native American culture in his murals. They were here long before European descendants arrived.
"History is a funny thing," said Webber, who studied to become a pulp chemist for Weyerhaueser after World War II.
"A lot of the people interested in our history are newcomers," he said.
Perhaps they are looking for a sense of identity, so they look back to find the anchor that will hold them here.
And Webber doesn't mind. A pragmatist at heart - he used his skills as an artist to support 10 children - he doesn't mind painting for history buffs. These days, as everyone seems to be celebrating 100 years of this or that, he is as busy as he was in the prime of his career.
MURAL IN THE WORKS
Most recently, Webber has been putting together - quite literally - a 6-foot-by-20-foot historical mural for the Port of Everett. It will be made up of six different panels when it is done.
The port - and the mural - illustrate the county's changing history.
"At one point, the port was all mud and dirty water," Webber said. Then came the pulp mills with their smokestacks. Today, restaurants and two marinas dominate the waterfront.
Webber doesn't wear rose-colored glasses when he paints his murals, but when "you deal with history, you deal with warmth," he said.
Which explains the warm colors and the lack of controversy on his murals. History is seldom kind, but in his murals, even the smoke has a certain warmth. Dad bringing home the bacon.
"I guess if I was in Arizona, I would paint sunsets," he said.
Perhaps the work reflects the man. Webber is an imposing figure - over 6 feet, broad shoulders, large hands. But he has a gentle face, and is soft-spoken, friendly. A pot of coffee is always ready for visitors to his studio near downtown Everett.
You won't find Webber's work in any art galleries because most of it is in private hands in at least seven countries and many states. But some of his murals, paintings and prints can be seen in public and private buildings and homes throughout Snohomish County.
Some of it can be seen at his studio, which looks more like an old garage. A single large window lets the sunlight in. The floor is cold concrete. The port's mural hangs from one of the walls, unfinished. The pot of coffee bubbles nearby. There's a small office on the corner of the room, a personal museum of sorts. Thank-you letters, certificates of appreciation from several county organizations and pictures hang from the walls.
There are rough drawings and finished watercolors on several tables. A stack two inches thick sits on the corner of the room. These are rough sketches of places around Snohomish County and the Puget Sound.
Webber calls the stack his "historical inventory," a catalog of places and things that have their days numbered.
He has built the stack over the years, traveling in his car through Snohomish, King and other counties, drawing farm houses, old churches and the hulls of tired boats.
"If anybody knows the area, it has to be my father," said Webber's daughter Elizabeth, the oldest of 10 children and one of two to follow in his artistic footsteps. "There are so few people left who have any sense of the identity of this area."
HE KNOWS THE PLACE
The Webbers have a long history in Snohomish County. Bernie Webber was born in Everett and has lived here most of his life. So has his wife, Joy. All their 10 children attended Everett High School. His 15 grandchildren don't live far.
Webber remembers doing his first sketches at about the age of 5. They became increasingly more sophisticated as the years went by.
With Webber working on so many projects, with sketches piled on top of one another, it was inevitable that some of his children would pick up a brush.
"Art . . . it was kind of second nature in this family. You grew up and you were an artist," said Elizabeth, who paints watercolors and is working on 12 pen-and-ink illustrations for the city of Everett, which will celebrate its centennial next year.
"It was just a normal thing. I always felt that this is what I wanted to do," she said. "Dad always had all these projects around the house. Occasionally, we helped him."
Webber still turns to his family on occasion, including the youngest of his grandchildren.
"Once in a while, I let them put a spot in my paintings," he said, smiling.
UNCLE GOT HIM STARTED
Webber was only passing along what he received from others. As a young boy, it was uncle Arne Jensen who helped him along with his early paintings. Arne himself probably got some pointers from the patriarch of the family, grandfather Christian Jensen, a Dane who emigrated to Minnesota before moving to Washington. Jensen painted churches and public buildings. He was also considered a great story teller.
"They were all very artistic on that side of the family," Webber said.
Webber started painting murals only in the last couple of years. And they appear to be so popular that he is always painting something for somebody.
For most of his career, he was a commercial artist. In the 1950s, he painted a rendering of Jetty Island as a giant industrial complex in 2000. Today, Jetty Island is a natural habitat.
He also painted the Space Needle and the Seattle Center Coliseum while under construction. He has done paintings of the Everett Navy home port.
Through his murals and smaller watercolors, Webber has learned to appreciate the outdoors. Nature is ever present in his work.
"Snohomish County . . . the entire thing was a green carpet," he said. "It is so devastating when you go in and take everything out.
"I love the fall. It is the best time to paint. To me, it is the resurrection of everything. To some people it means death," he said.
And when you are painting during the season "you can't miss. It is the most beautiful time of the year to paint."
------------------------------------ The artist on display
Some of Bernie Webber's murals, paintings and prints can be seen in public and private buildings throughout Snohomish County. Some of those locations:
-- Snohomish County Administration Building in downtown Everett. This is a 14- by 20-foot mural made up of nine separate panels celebrating the history of Snohomish County.
-- Providence Hospital in Everett. Webber said two murals on the history of Providence Hospital can be found here.
-- Two science-related murals at Everett and Cascade high schools in the Everett School District.
-- Chicago Title Insurance Co. in downtown Everett. This is a mural detailing the histories of Everett, Snohomish, Marysville, Stanwood, and Mukilteo.
-- Marysville Safety Building, city of Marysville. A historic perspective.