A few weeks ago the Northwest artist James L. Acord passed away. I have fond memories of visiting James out on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, when he was working and living there. He was the only person working outside of the defense / nuclear industry to posses a permit for uranium. He sculpted with it. We had decided to do a feature on him for the fiftieth anniversary of the atomic age, which we commemorated in Plazm 10, the nuclear issue.
A group of us made the drive out there one afternoon in my VW Vanagon. It’s a few hours up the Gorge from Portland. I distinctly remember arriving on a hot summer afternoon. Jim lived and worked in a simple concrete warehouse at the edge of the reservation. He had a table set up outdoors with a bunch of picnic foods on it. We made introductions, Brian Freer, the writer working on the article was there, as was Warren Dykeman, the designer who would be designing the piece. After about a half hour of hanging out, snacking, drinking beer, etc. someone asked about a constant ticking noise. There was a geiger counter on the picnic table pointed at a bowl of potato chips. It turned out to be one of the original Fiesta Wear bowls, which contained uranium. I learned later that as Jim’s interest turned to all things radioactive, before he got his permit, he had begun stripping paint from Fiesta Wear, to the point that the State of Washington made it illegal to possess more than a certain amount of the cheesy table settings.
His goal was to erect a radioactive monument to the nuclear age on the Hanford site. He would say things like “the Department of Energy has a whole file cabinet in Washington D.C. just for me.”I certainly believed him. He pushed so much paperwork around that he finally made a body of work called, I think, The Document Project. He had glued pages together into maybe 3″-4” stacks, then cut them in quarters and mounted them on plaques, much like you would a small animal trophy. These were sold to keep some income coming in.
He was also a great tour guide for the Hanford area, a repository of vast amounts of information. Hanford is a crazy place. It was evacuated in the Cold War, and was integral to the building of the atomic bomb. There are school houses and streets that remain untouched from that era. And the Hanford Reach is one of the most pristine stretches of the Columbia River remaining—if you discount that the whole thing is probably radioactive. But it looks beautiful. He had keys to gates. Gates that allowed us to tool around and see the sights.
He never could seem to get his project built. I think it was very difficult for him personally. He loved what he was doing, but Jim gave up seemingly everything to do his art. When I met him, he was sleeping in his studio on a cheap foam pad. His glasses were taped together, with one lens cracked. His wife had left him. It seemed he was on his own in the wilderness. He committed suicide about a month ago after years of battling depression. I emailed with him periodically over the last couple years. I heard that he was living hard on the streets of Seattle. But I remember him full of life and energy. Taking us to the Richland High School to buy Bombers merchandise—to this day, the high school uses the mushroom cloud as a mascot, picking us up when the van broke down at the Fast Flux Text Facility, rolling out the welcome mat to a bunch of kids from Portland. Jim navigated the world in a unique way, the way that only a true artist can, helping others to see the truth below the surface. James Acord, RIP.
More on James Acord:
Remembering the Artist and His Work – a site started in Jim’s honor
Moving to Richland by Philip Schuyler – The New Yorker