Jack Knox: Storm smashes Songhees walkway landmark back into driftwood

The storm-tossed pile of logs and lumber no longer looks like a piece of art, or a pirate ship, or a bench, or whatever it was that people chose to see while strolling the Songhees walkway. You can still spot its brightly painted components — a 15-foot shark, a driftwood killer whale — poking out of the wreckage on the shore, though. Passersby pause at the railing and gaze down like mourners paying their last respects at an open-casket funeral.

“It’s heartbreaking,” says Tryce Blion. “It’s such a neat little playground. It was a hidden gem, a hidden treasure among all the gentrification of Victoria.”

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He’s talking about Fan-Ta-Sea Isle, familiar to an entire generation of Victorians as they followed the waterfront walk just a couple of minutes from Spinnakers on the way to Esquimalt. Familiar, that is, until last week’s windstorm, which turned it back into beach debris.

Folk artist Rich Rico found out about the destruction from a friend who saw photos posted on social media. “It sort of scrambled me up a bit,” he said Thursday, eyeballing what was left.

You see, Rico didn’t just create Fan-Ta-Sea Isle. He figures it turned his health around.

The story goes back almost 20 years to when Rico — known as Matthews in non-art life — was diagnosed with Graves disease, an autoimmune condition that affects the thyroid. “I went from 130 pounds to 100.”

He was trying to figure out how to cope when he discovered a Songhees resident known as Mother May, whose garden was dotted with art — faces painted onto driftwood.

Inspired, he began to work, fashioning his creation from objects offered up by the saltchuck: planks, logs, bits of wood. “I didn’t carve anything,” Rico says. “I just did what nature gave me.” He painted what he divined, for he sees faces — eyes, mouths, elephant trunks — in wood and stone in the same way that others see them in clouds.

Broken clamshells gave a purple Cadborosaurus its teeth. A copper cap topped the head of a bearded man painted onto a log draped in a lumberjack shirt. King and Queen Neptune’s throne got a new carpet last summer. Messages were daubed on the wood. “Sit and enjoy the moment,” read one.

The structure fired the imagination, let children conjure up sailing ships and dragons. Unseen was the logging chain anchoring it all to rocks underneath.

The art was unsanctioned, but few seemed to mind. Many took it upon themselves to add bits.

Former premier Dave Barrett was among those who would offer encouragement as he strolled past. People recognized it for what it was, an attempt to bring happiness to others, a little oasis built with neither permission nor expectation of reward.

The funny thing is, the more Rico worked on it, and the more people reacted to it, the better he felt.

Gradually, his symptoms disappeared. “I got healed from all the blessings,” he says. He’ll turn 77 next month on Robbie Burns Day.

The former barber-stylist and developer — he opened the Pier One restaurant in the mid-1970s — hasn’t really added to Fan-Ta-Sea Isle in 10 years, though he did spend every day last June and July repainting and “tightening her up.”

Then came the Dec. 20 storm.

Rico had already rebuilt his creation twice — once after a storm and once after it was dismantled by officialdom — but the destruction this time was pretty overwhelming. He figures he can salvage half a dozen nice pieces from the wreckage.

Ideally, he would like to see them incorporated into a little park he wants the city to build — somewhere for kayakers to pull in and children to play. If the city doesn’t go for that idea, the pieces will end up in his garage.

He has other things to keep himself occupied, like feeding geese and swans with bread held in his mouth — strips of Cobs seedy bread work best — something he has done for 30 years. People interested in the evolution of the beach art can check out Fan-Ta-Sea-Isle.com or write richrico@shaw.ca.

For now, that evolution has come to an end — though some of those strolling the walkway Thursday could still see beauty in what remained.

“It’s so fantastic, I would like to take pieces for my grandchildren in Germany,” said Clivia Reindl, in town with her husband, an official with the International Ice Hockey Federation, for the world junior tournament.

Introduced to Rico, she offered her sympathies — to which he replied: “Nature gives and nature takes.”

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