The Madonna From Shel's Boat

1972 - The Madonna From Shel's Boat

This was a scene I created, in my sepia pen & ink wash technique, of the Madonna from the porch of the Evil Eye owned by Shel Silverstein while I was staying there. Back then, in the early 70's, my friend Lawrence White and I were working together on my Master's project for San Francisco State College on Shel's boat while we were care taking for Shel. Apparently, Shel felt that an invitation from his friend "Hef' to have his own room for the winter at the Playboy Mansion in Chicago made more sense than, as Shel put it , "freezing my ass off on my houseboat." Shel added, with a twinkle in his eye, as he tried to convince himself to go and convince us to watch his place, "It's probably going to be MUCH warmer there, and there were surely going to be GREAT visuals." Shel had a way of getting what he wanted and the innate ability to read people. This ended up being great all around. The timing was perfect. Shel wanted a warm place to hang out for the winter and Larry and I were looking for a place big enough to film from my many sepia pen & ink wash scenes, still photographs, and colored slides capturing the feeling of the houseboat community located in the mud flats of Waldo Point. Larry was working on his Master's Degree in filmmaking from the San Francisco Art Institute at the time. The mixed media film we were creating would help each of us to reach our goals. The ideas we came up with, which actually worked, impressed my professors as well as the professors at the Art Institute. Rather than bring the finished film, and all the art work we shot from, into a sterile classroom at San Francisco State we invited the head of the Creative Arts department and a couple of my professors for a showing on Shel's boat. This was a real "happening", to say the least. Many of the ladies at the community put together a wonderful meal. With an abundance of wine, and the movement of the boat combined with the many smells from our feast, fun was had by all, AND I got an A+ on our project. Later, at a showing of our film to film majors at the Art Institute, some of Larry's professors in film actually asked how we created certain effects. Larry was as thrilled as I was. I received my Degree in 1972 and Larry got his BFA in '74 and his MFA in '76.1 stayed on at the community since I couldn't think of another place anywhere that had the creative energy that I experienced there. Check out Larry's site at to see over 4 decades of work!

The "Madonna" was the creation of Chris Roberts, who was among the most creative of the houseboat builders. Chris was well known among the locals, as well as the authorities who took a dim view of his activities. Though somewhat im-practical, his creations were both stunning and beautiful. His Madonna was built around an old pile driver which had a tall wooden structure about 70 feet high around which he created his vision of Mary, mother of Jesus. His goal of completing his masterpiece that he planned to call the "Madonna & Child" never was realized. I still have nightmares at times about the night the Madonna burned to the ground. Some IDIOT, stoned out of his mind on a combination of drugs, thought that it would be a good idea to pound red hot spikes into this amazing, but very dry, wooden structure to see what might happen. I can still picture the flames shooting off the Madonna to this day. Thanks to the quick thinking of many of the locals such as Joe Tate, Larry Moyer and scores of others that night, the whole community didn't go up in smoke. Fire hoses, and a bucket brigade comprised of community members risking their own safety couldn't save the Madonna BUT every other structure and dock in the immediate area was soaked down so that the hot ashes pouring down on everyone wouldn't ignite anything else. Decades later those who knew her ALL still miss this magical place. Many at the community referred to the Madonna simply as the "Tower" and often employed it as a place to have parties. Although horizontal space was limited, Chris was always happy to make this magical place available. As Joe Tate put it "this allowed Chris to recruit cheap labor from the drunks that showed up. Among these were Dredge, Captain Garbage, and a number of other local celebrities."

Chris Roberts also built the superstructure for the Evil Eye, and the "Owl," another unusual houseboat on which he lived. It was constructed around an old wooden stiff-leg crane which also had a towering structure. Though much shorter than the Madonna, it was still huge back then compared with the neighboring houseboats. I was surprised and thrilled when I returned to the Gates, 30 years after leaving in 1978, to see the Owl again. I had assumed that it had disappeared years earlier. Chris and I had something in common. We both tended to really get into the details of a project. In honor of the creative effort Chris put into designing and building the Madonna I actually counted each and every vertical board covering the Madonna. I even put the knot holes where they were supposed to be on each board as I diligently worked on this scene in sepia brown ink from Shel's porch.

The Madonna from Shel's Boat

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