Artist Profile: Bellingham’s Jim Ojala shares his passion for rowing through books and art

Bellingham’s Jim Ojala is a longtime rower, and has been active in Whatcom Rowing Association for the past three years. When a fellow WRA member posted a handbill at Bloedel Donovan Park about Allied Arts’ call for submissions in conjunction with this year’s Whatcom Reads! book by Daniel James Brown, “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest at the 1936 Olympics,” he decided to create a collage on a subject he knows well.

“I did it mostly for fun,” he says, “and to share my collection of rowing images with others.”

The collage shows through February at the Allied Arts Gallery, 1418 Cornwall Ave., and then moves to a yet-undetermined library in Whatcom County.

Here’s more about Cleveland-born Ojala, who came to Bellingham in 2011 from Seattle when he married Vicci Turner; they live on the hill above Barkley Square.

Question: How did you first become interested in rowing?

Answer: My dream when I entered Pacific Lutheran University was to become a basketball star. Alas, it was not to be, and I was cut from the freshman squad. Standing 6’5” at the time (and still standing the same height today), I was an obvious target for recruitment for the school’s crew team.

As a result, 50 years ago this year, I took my first stroke in the Husky Clipper, (the 1936 Olympics winning racing shell). Owing more to my height and ornery nature than to my talent, I earned four varsity letters in rowing at PLU, and served as commodore for two years and as player and coach for three.

In March of 1967 I sat in (1937 Olympic rower) Joe Rantz’s No. 7 seat in the Husky Clipper in a race in which we thoroughly destroyed varsity men’s crews from the University of Puget Sound and Seattle University. As I like to put it, the Washington Huskies took the Clipper out a winner in Berlin in 1936, while the PLU crew brought her home a winner still in Tacoma 31 years later.

For four summers I rowed for the Lake Washington Rowing Club in Seattle, mostly in small boats. In the summer of 1968, I was one of 20 men chosen nationally to participate in a pre-Olympic selection camp at at the University of Washington preparatory to the Mexico City Games. Among my coaches that summer were George and Stan Pocock (George designed the winning Husky Clipper for the 1936 Olympics).

(Later on, after years of rowing in Seattle) from 1981 through 1984, I worked closely with Stan Pocock helping promote his boats. It was at that time that Stan fully introduced his innovative monocoque (carbon-fiber) design for shells made of composite materials. We kept in regular touch in the years that followed.

In 1998 I learned for the first time that Stan had written a memoir. I asked to see a copy, and soon we launched an all-out effort to bring it to press. It took two years to the day. We published “Way Enough!: Recollections of a Life in Rowing” in April 2000.

Q: What’s behind the story of your collage at Allied Arts?

A: I consider my artistic talents to center more on the written word than on anything visual. Beginning with “Way Enough!,” I have been a part of a dozen or so book projects, serving variously as author, co-author, editor, graphics designer, editor and/or publisher. With each new book the selection of hats worn by me has varied.

In putting together the collage at the Allied Arts, I drew from images I had accumulated when putting together “Way Enough!” I also drew upon the graphics work I put into designing that title and several other books. I describe my approach to graphic and book design as “architectural.”

I’m primarily concerned with forms and proportions and contrast, and how the different elements relate to each other in creating an overall impression and, of course, with the visual impact they have on the reader.

Q: What are your thoughts about “The Boys in the Boat?”

A: I think that this book stands alone in the history of books about sports. Its story is timeless.

I first met Dan three-plus years ago through Judy Rantz Willman (the daughter of Joe Rantz) and her husband, Ray Willman. Ray is a cousin of my wife Vicci. I offered input to Dan and shared with him and his publisher copies of “Way Enough!” I offered to donate however many images they wanted for inclusion in the book.

Six images from “Way Enough!” made it into the book when it was published.

Reach Margaret Bikman at 360-715-2273 or margaret.bikman@bellinghamherald.com.