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Introducing Bill Laux, Late Local Artist, Writer and Castle Builder

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1960A051Bill Laux

Bill Laux: Writer, Artist and Castle Builder

From the Obituary Column of the Arrow Lakes News

The Arrow Lakes lost another of its World War II veterans. William Arlington Laux, age 79, resident of Fauquier for 42 years died of cancer in the Arrow Lakes Hospital on October 7, 2004. He is survived by one brother, Jim Laux, in Florida, USA as well as three nephews. Bill’s wife, Adele predeceased him in 1967. Bill was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin, on February 28, 1925. He entered the US Army in 1943 and served with the Allied Army troops that crossed France and northern Germany ending World War II in 1945. After the war Bill studied English at university, but chose not to be an academic. Instead he worked outdoors. First with the Forest Service, then the California Park Service and finally as grounds superintendent at Yosemite National Park. While at Yosemite he met and married his wife, Adele Osborne. Bill and Adele immigrated to Canada in late 1962, where they were apprentices to Jack and Janie Ise of Vaki Batiks who moved their business from Mexico to Cedar Springs Farm, south of Fauquier on the lakeshore. A couple of years later, the Wises sold the business to the Laux’s who continued making and selling batiks, an enterprise Bill continued for many years after Adele’s death. In the early 1980s Bill started a new career as historian searching out the stories and locations of the early mines and railways of the West Kootenays and eastern Washington state. He published many magazine articles, though his books are unpublished. Bill is known for his endeavours as an artist, a writer, a builder of buildings made of mud-cement bricks, a small hydroelectric plant operator, as well as an exotic evergreen tree nurseryman.

When looking through the archives at the Fauquier Communication Centre, where Bill Laux’s unpublished works are located, I came across a few old floppy disks that contained among other documents two of his major unpublished books on the railroad and mining history in the Kootenays. The data that I found were recorded in the ancient Apple format. It took me considerable time and effort to have these data decoded. As I publish them one chapter at a time, I will also make them available to the Arrow Lakes Historical Society headquartered in Nakusp. In doing so I hope to pay homage to a great local artist, writer and castle builder, who died too soon to see his historical research published. The book that I published last year was on the colourful history of the railroads . The second book focuses on the era of the mining industry in the Kootenays. Both railroads and mining are intimately connected with each other, as one could not exist without the other.

 

Breaking the Code – Part IV

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Patience and Persistence Pave the Road to Success

The search was on for software that would convert Bill Laux’s ClarisWorks files into Word documents. For information I visited Apple and MS Word forums. Some offered very lame solutions: Load the file into word processor X, wade through the first 4 pages through a jungle of gibberish, delete it and you are left with just the text. I decided against this odd solution, which may be fine for just a few files, but with hundreds of files that would have turned into a nightmare.

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Batik by Artist Bill Laux

There were a lot of complaints against the Apple Company, which did not produce a single program that was backward compatible with their old product. But many forum contributors were also unhappy with MicroSoft Word not being able to read files with the cwk extension. In other words there was a real dearth of information on the Internet. Someone suggested downloading the open source software Abiword, whose claim to fame is that it can read all kinds of text files without any gibberish on the screen. I tried it with no success, but learned on the side that it is otherwise a very powerful word processor that can easily read and write Word document files. It is free and but accepts donations for further development.

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The Castle that Bill Laux built – Photo Taken in 1977

Then by mere luck – and we need it when we do work like this on the Internet – I stumbled across a comment made in a users forum to the effect that a program with the promising title docXConverter by Panergy might just do the trick. It was supposed be free. I eagerly downloaded the software and tried it out immediately. After the installation you simply drop the file into its window on the screen and voilà it works! Yet there was another fly in the ointment. After being mesmerized by the first couple of pages directly decoded and translated into Word format, I was confronted with another message, this time by the Panergy company to pay to get the full version. Being enticed to bite the bullet and pay the reasonable amount, I finally experienced the ultimate success in my quest to unearth Bill`s mystery files.

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Tiny Portion of a Bill’s First Document Decoded and Revealed

So my plan for the New Year is to collect as many text files from Bill`s research and publish some on my blog, but also donate them to the Arrow Lakes Historical Society. Of course, I will do this on the shaky assumption that MS Word will be around for a few more years or with any luck even decades.

If you would like to read the previous posts on Breaking the Code, click on the following links (part I, part II, part III)

Breaking the Code – Part III

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 The Unholy Union of Success and Failure

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The Unicorn by Batik Artist Bill Laux

The new external disk drive arrived. Hooray, it worked! I was able to retrieve one floppy after another. The feeling of success after such a long wait almost created a sense of euphoria. After checking some fifty disks with all those enticing file names, I came across only one disk that the floppy disk drive could not read. Some contained images, but most had text files all carefully numbered by chapters indicating that massive amounts of research were hidden on these archaic storage devices. That was exactly what I was hoping to find. I randomly picked one disk and transferred its content onto my harddrive. In our era abounding in giga- and terabytes, we easily forget the times when we had to struggle to make do with 3.5 kilobytes, with which the Vic-20, the dinosaur of ancient computer world, came so equipped. Still if the content was merely text and NOT the byte gobbling images and videos, then an entire novel of 800 pages would easily fit on a floppy disk.

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One of the Dozens of Floppy Disks with Bill Laux’s Writing

Now came that long expected moment to get a first look at Bill’s writing. From the first list of titles I could tell that their content dealt mostly with the political wrangling over the building of the great Canadian transcontinental railway, whose purpose was to unite the second largest country in the world.

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Bill Laux Working on his Castle at the Arrow Lake in 1977

Full of anticipation, I double-clicked on chapter1.cwk. Like a lightning bolt out of the blue sky, I was struck by the ominous computer message on the screen, “Windows cannot open this file”. Upon further investigation, I discovered that the file extension cwk comes from the extinct word processor Clarisworks, which the Apple company had acquired in 1998, renamed it AppleWorks, but later on abandoned it after its final upgrade in 2004. Owning 4 different word processors, I was almost certain that at least one of them would be capable of decoding those archaic files. Having thus recovered from my disappointment, I loaded one text file into the queen of all word processors (of course, I am referring to Word by Microsoft). But its performance was a total disaster. All it could produce was a whole pile of gobbledygook on the screen. Similar results surfaced, when I tried the other three word processors. Great was my disappointment, but I was not yet ready to give up. How the story ends will be revealed in next week’s post on Bill Laux and his mysterious collection. So stay tuned.

Breaking the Code – Part II

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Finding the Drive to Unearth Bill’s Files

One evening last spring I spent some time at the Fauquier Communication Center. More precisely, I stood in awe at the section dedicated to the late writer and artist Bill Laux of Fauquier, BC. There in the archives I discovered a wealth of books from Bill’s private library, complete manuscripts of mostly unpublished plays, short stories, and even novels, research papers on the 19th century railroad and mining industries of the Pacific Northwest. As already mentioned in Part I of this series, what fascinated me the most were the many floppy disks that I had found on the side shelves of the archive. What mysterious files would they contain on those poorly labeled plastic squares?

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Batik by Bill Laux

The oldest working computer, which my wife once used, is a Toshiba laptop. Unfortunately, it does not have a floppy disk drive. Searching the world wide web, I found that there are two ways to get to the files locked away in outdated storage systems.

  • 1) mail the disk to floppytransfer.com, a company in California, which downloads the files and transfers them onto a USB flashdrive. That would have been OK, if I had only a few disks to copy. But with such a great number to copy I rejected this option. It would have demanded an exorbitant price tag.
  • 2) Buy an external drive that connects to a USB port on my computer.

Full of joyful anticipation, I ordered such a device from China for as little as 10 dollars shipping and handling included. Two weeks later the item arrived in the mail. Imagine my utter disappointment, when – no matter which of Bill’s disks I inserted into the machine – I got the same horrible message. ‘This disk must be formatted before it can be used.’could  For those not familiar with technical jargon, formatting is the death sentence for any files residing on the disk. For they will permanently erased.

Bill Laux

Artist, Writer, and Castle Builder Bill Laux

Starting a search on the Internet all over again, I stumbled on a great deal at amazon.ca (for our American neighbors I guess you could use amazon,com with similar results). I decided to give it one more shot and buy a floppy disk drive that came with the guarantee of being capable of reading all the files. After another anxiety ridden waiting period I experienced a most peculiar sequence of initial euphoria followed by a free fall into utter frustration.

 vaki6

To be continued next week in Part III

Breaking the Code – Part I

9

Bill Laux and the Mysterious Floppy Disks

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In spite of my wife’s courageous leap into the world of information technology, she has remained very critical of the many shortcomings of the new tools that our digital era has forced upon us. Would the archeologists a thousand years from now, so she often raises the question, ever be able to find out what lies hidden underneath the shiny layer of a CD or DVD disk. They might claim that the 21st century inhabitants had regressed to a form of sun worship, as it was practiced in ancient civilizations. Those glittering round objects could have been used to invoke the sun to provide more light for the planet darkened by pollution and nuclear fall-out. Having turned mellow after half a century of exposure to marital bliss, I found enough room in my heart to admit, although somewhat reluctantly, that my wife had raised a very important question whose relevance will become evident in the light of my own experiences with outdated technology.

vaki2

If you had read my previous posts on Bill Laux, the eccentric artist, who built his own castle at the shore of the Lower Arrow Lake, you would know that he was not only famous for his works in batik, but was also known as a writer and researcher of the early mining, logging, and transportation industries in the Pacific Northwest. When he passed away in December 2004, he bequeathed  his entire collection of pictures, books, manuscripts, journals and sundry documents to the Fauquier Communication Center. There his work has found a permanent home and is waiting to be explored, evaluated and hopefully published on the Internet.

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What really piqued my curiosity, were scores of floppy disks stashed away on the side shelves of the computer room of the Fauquier Communication Center. Their content had remained a deep mystery until very recently. On next week’s post I will share with you the immense difficulties I experienced in decoding the information from a storage device barely a quarter century old. What I found was a veritable treasure trove of Bill’s work, which would have been lost forever on the junk pile of modern civilization. Stay tuned.

William Laux – His Art, His Castle and a Tower of Bats – Part I

William Laux

By Yvette Brend – Arrow Lakes News December 14, 1988

From the Archives of the Arrow Lakes Historical Society

Photos by Peter Klopp

Bill Laux plans nothing.

Forester, Batik artist and sculptor, he builds his talents like he builds his “castle”, ad­ding walls, arched windows and wood stoves to every room. He prefers not to finish.

“When you put the roof on, that’s as high as it’s going to go, and that’s a sad day,” he said. Visitors pass a “Beware of Bats” sign entering Laux’s property, and may no­tice a strange gnome perched on his chimney. Up the hill, overlooking Arrow Lakes stands his strangest, most imposing creation. Laux be­gan his pet architectural pro­ject in 1969. It symbolizes his entire life.

The 'Castle' that would never be finished

The ‘Castle’ that would never be finished – 1977

He has varied interest from the daring architecture of Huntertwasser, and copies of Col. R.T. Lowery’s witty edi­torials to the tiny brown bats that live under the eaves of his “castle.”

Laux has an English de­gree from the University of Wisconsin, with some chemis­try and science background.

“I took English because it gave me the most freedom,” said Laux, “as long as you took one English course, you could take anything else you wanted.”

He worked as a forester in California before moving to Canada, when the U.S. Feder­al government expropriated his property for a park re­serve. He changed countries and then professions. Laux and his wife Adele, bought 100 acres in Fauquier, where he began a batik studio. Laux had no prior artistic experien­ce, but his chemistry back­ground fostered his inventive skills with dyes for fabric.

Batik Purchased by Gertrud Klopp - 1977

Batik Purchased by Gertrud Klopp – 1977

“I got involved in batik be­cause I was broke – the great­est motivation in the world,” laughed Bill.

The Lauxs moved to B.C. because they loved the valley, and land was very cheap in the interior during the 1960’s.

When B.C. Hydro bought the flood rights to seven acres of Laux’s property he was cautious. Part of his neighbor Logan Bumpus’ land and Laux’s foreshore was flooded. Laux was compensated with a generator to restore his pow­er. He was not disheartened by this event at all, saying it was good luck to be discon­nected from B.C. Hydro. Lo­gan Bumpus never regained his power. [They do have power now.]

Adele, Bill’s wife, died sud­denly in 1967 from blood poi­soning, leaving him alone in Fauquier.

Batik was very stylish in the 1970’s and artists began to gather at Laux’s in the summer to learn the art of waxing and dyeing fabric.

Bill joined with other art­ists to form Vaki studios – a Tarahumara Mexican Indian word meaning “homestead”.

Batik Purchased by Gertrud Klopp - 1977

Batik Purchased by Gertrud Klopp – 1977

When Vaki studios started booming it supported five full time artists, who worked dur­ing the winter and sold on the road two months of the year.

Laux said it took some time before he felt confident as a designer, he excelled at the chemical mixing of dyes and created new dyes for different effects.

He taught Batik techni­ques to students until 1975, but now he prefers to create.

Batik is a form of artwork using waxes and dyes to em­boss a pattern on a natural fabric – usually high quality cotton.

A negative design is drawn on the fabric with wax resist of different consistencies, then dipped into a dye one co­lor at a time, using yellow first, then ruby red, tur­quoise-blue to black, and slowly a design is built.

Originally Batik was sold as yardage for clothing. Batikers created a design and made a yard of it for sewing into garments. For this rea­son many Batik artists had problems as the process was recognized only as craftwork. Crafts have a use; art is creat­ed solely for aesthetic value.

Once completed, a batik is identical front and back. Silk screening – the process or printing fabric with oil based ink – does not produce this ef­fect. Hung in a window, in front of a light source, the ba­tik acts like a stained glass window, casting colored light.

“There’s no way to dupli­cate a batik, except going through the process again,” said Bill.

Different waxes used on the fabrics creates varied ef­fects, a brittle wax creates more of a “crackle” or cracked texture, smoother wax gives an even color. Ba­tiks were in fashion in the 1920’s, and again in the 1960’s, “Oh they’ll come in fa­shion again. ’ ’ said Laux.

Vaki studios sold at least 80 batiks a year, in British Columbia and along the west coast of the U.S. They pro­duced Westcoast Indian de­signs, Mexican Indian patterns, Oriental and floral pat­terns. The artists worked on each other’s ideas, making the operation a co-op studio. Vaki Studios designed an Owl Lo­go for the Calgary Inn. The Inn only bought one batik of the design, fearing the $90 art work would be damaged if placed in the rooms.

“I would recommend this to anybody, when you go into a hotel, with those awful pic­tures on the wall, put them under the bed, and I mean leave them there, ” he said emphatically, “ After a while management may get the hint – It’s visual pollution, but no­body says anything.”

“We couldn’t make enough bullfighter stuff in Calgary,” Bill speculated that many rich Calgarians holiday in Mexico, and admired the Mexican styles of their work.

Indian designs were also popular. Art studio refused to handle genuine Indian artists, and their skills remained in tourist booths – carving totem poles and soapstone.

Some of the titles of his pieces were Toro, Witness Tree, Constipated Owl, and Lovers or Madonna and Child.

Through the growth of his studio, Bill also began work on his “castle” in 1968 with fellow artist, gone architect, Lynne Gilroy. “Those happy days are gone. A lot of art outlets in B.C. have gone bankrupt and can’t make it anymore,” laughed Laux. “If I were to hit the California market now, I’d sell them life sized sculptures of their astrological signs.”

So Laux began to spend more time with his pre­packaging dye and tool busi­ness and his architectural pro­ject. He still does some cus­tom work for commercial in­teriors, such as hotel lobbies and other public buildings.

“When you’re in the art business you have to keep changing. Tastes change.”

Someone gave him the idea of sculpting with steel wool and cement, so he built a strange gnome, which perches on his chimney. After seeing his chimney ornament, a resi­dent of Fauquier commis­sioned him to create a meteor­ite-like chimney pot, and two customers, in Seattle and Wenatchee Washington, have also ordered custom sculp­tures.

Four of his life-sized struc­tures will also be placed on his turret, one for each chimney. He has rigged a pulley system to hoist the heavy pieces into position.

Bill Laux working without a Plan - 1977

Bill Laux working without a Plan – 1977

Laux’s castle can be viewed from his small two le­vel cabin and studio, lower on the property. The ominous structure faces the lake with turrets, endless chimneys and white-framed windows.

“We didn’t draw any plans, we just let it keep growing,” said Bill.

Entering the house, a gey­ser spurts water on its left – perhaps for a fountain? Bill prefers to leave it to the ima­gination.

The house has three main levels and countless smaller rooms on varying levels. The main turret has three levels, one planned as Laux’s bed­room, with a small hatch door on the floor to close off the world.

Laux said he learned “rude carpentry” from his experi­ence as a forester and experi­mented from there.

Two of the chimney statues are in place. They are naked females, one with flowing gol­den hair. The third, a nude In­dian with spear is almost fini­shed, and the fourth is still in Laux’s imagination.

From the turret another chimney topped by an ab­stract chimney pot, made of old dishes, mirrors and brown clay, can be viewed.

The tower also presents a seemingly endless view of the Arrow Lakes. “The higher we

went, the better the view got,” he said.

Downstairs, past veran­das and window frames hand sculpted with Poly filler, the basement floor is heated by a huge log burning stove, and contains Laux mini sawmill he uses to cut the lumber for building. The bathroom and kitchen should be finished by next year, when Laux may move in.

Bill picked up a tiny bat, dead from exposure, on his or­nate windowsill, and gently examined it.

“I don’t plan, I never have planned, because when I plan something, I always change it.”

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