February 16, 2022
Moving from tragedy to hope — with clay
Chris O'Neill

Potter Chris Moench creates prayer wheels in a studio surrounded by trees at the end of a long driveway just outside Bellingham. Moench’s work changed direction after the 1999 pipeline explosion in Bellingham that took the lives of three boys and discharged a massive volume of gasoline into the watershed. (Chris O’Neill photo © 2022)

February 16, 2022
Moving from tragedy to hope — with clay
Chris O'Neill

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The Axis of Hope Studio is at the end of a long and winding gravel driveway off Bellingham’s Yew Street Road. It’s a modest-sized workshop just big enough to accommodate Chris Moench, an artisan potter inspired by tragedy to create art with a message.

On Thursday afternoon, June 10, 1999, a pipeline operated by the Olympic Pipeline Company ruptured and spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of gasoline into Hannah and Whatcom Creeks. The fuel ignited; the explosion and fire left three young boys dead and a grief-stricken community wondering what went wrong. 

“I was walking in Lake Padden Park and I looked up and there’s a huge column of black smoke,” Moench said. “I quickly found out what it was when I turned on the radio.”

Moench later found out he knew the families of the three victims.

“It affected the whole community,” Moench said. “It felt to me like something that we needed to remember and learn from.”

For months Moench pondered how he could use his skills as an artist to properly commemorate the event. At the time, Moench had been creating mostly garden sculptures and utilitarian pottery, but now he wanted to create something different.

“I ran across a photo of a pre-Columbian Mayan sculpture, which was just a simple cylinder with an illustrated story around the outside,” Moench said. He used that concept to create a piece to remember the disaster. 

Chaos and prayer

But when Moench retrieved the piece from his kiln, he was surprised and dismayed.

“Two sizeable cracks appeared at the base of the vessel,” Moench said. “But then, I thought, well, it’s kind of appropriate given the subject matter of the piece.”

Cracking is a common occurrence when working with clay pottery, and Moench had learned over the years to accept it as part of the process. He decided to accent the cracks rather than repair them by filling them in with yellow-colored grout in order to symbolize the chaotic fire of the event.

“The pipeline is symbolized by the pipe section sticking out of the top of the vessel,” Moench said. “The kids are symbolized by the three bears that are chasing fish in the creek.”

Moench presented his commemorative piece to Big Rock Garden Park as part of a spring-opening sculpture show in 2000 about a year after the tragedy. Attendees were encouraged to write down their thoughts or reflections with paper and pencil and place them inside the vessel.

“I called the first one a prayer wheel after I had made it,” Moench said. “I wasn’t familiar at the time with the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of prayer wheels and a lot of people make that connection, but I’m not a practicing Buddhist myself.”

Storytelling

As years went by, Moench’s prayer wheels gained in popularity, transitioning from a side project into his main body of work.

“I just started making them in addition to the other pottery work I was doing, and people responded to them,” Moench said. “I started getting commissions for weddings and urns and just sort of meditative focal points for people’s homes.”

A crack becomes part of the message in a prayer wheel made by potter Chris Moench. (Chris O’Neill photo © 2022)

A milestone in Moench’s prayer wheel creations came in 2008 when Seeds of Compassion organizers requested a custom piece for their event.

Moench said that he enjoyed the intersection of creative freedom and connection that the prayer wheels created between him and his clients.

“It’s not my story, I’m telling their story,” Moench said. “I tell them, ‘This is not about me. I’m just trying to understand what your vision is and create something using the skills that I have’.”

“I had been invited by the organizers of the event to make a prayer wheel as a gift for the Dalai Lama as a sort of token of remembrance and appreciation,” Moench said. “He had a big smile on his face, and he shook my hand and clasped his palms together and did a little bow.”

On the tenth anniversary of his first prayer wheel and the tragic events of the gas rupture, Moench created another commemorative piece and decided to bronze cast it as well. The result was two identical prayer wheels, the original made of clay, and a bronze cast copy which he donated to the City of Bellingham. Moench was also given the opportunity to present the piece at a commemorative event in Marine Park before it debuted to the public.

“When they asked me how I envisioned displaying it, I decided I wanted it to be in a place that the public would have access to it and encounter it,” Moench said. “Right in the City Hall lobby seemed like the best location, where the decisions are made that shape our community.”

The original clay version is in the office of the Whatcom Land Trust, a land conservation organization that Moench has been involved in for decades, most recently as a board member.

The Land Trust’s mission is to “…preserve and protect wildlife habitat, scenic, agricultural and open space lands in Whatcom County for future generations by securing interests in land and promoting land stewardship.” Moench explained that the environment had always been a source of inspiration and continues to serve as material for his artwork.

‘Moving sanctuaries’

“The natural world is just so astounding,” Moench said. “I’m just in awe, and I love to tell that story.”

Today, Moench’s prayer wheels can be seen in a number of locations, including the Denver Botanic Gardens, Seattle Cancer Alliance, University of Washington Library, Waterman’s Museum in Virginia and World Water Week in Stockholm. Moench’s focus remains on his clients by creating what he refers to as “moving sanctuaries” for whomever wishes to commission one.

“These are definitely intended as spiritual tools, whatever spirituality means to people without putting some kind of religious umbrella over it,” Moench said. “I don’t try to dictate that but to provide an opportunity for people to, you know, take a minute.”

— Reported by Chris O’Neill 

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