Late artist’s unique masterpiece is probably the only reason to visit Brownsville.
words MARGARET APPEL
photos CHRISTINE DONG
There is an all-too-familiar stretch of Interstate-5 that links so many of us from Eugene to Portland and the small towns in between — it’s roughly a two-hour drive that can fly by if you’re lucky enough to own a vehicle or get in on a friendly paddy wagon. Otherwise, you’re probably suffocating on the Greyhound, or making awkward small talk with the ride you weaseled out of someone via a desperate Facebook status plea. Regardless of your chosen chariot to PDX, it’s inevitable that at some point you will tear your eyes away from the thrilling game of Words With Friends you’ve got going and look out the window. There are a number of exits with small-towney names that will have you pondering how miserable that place must be, and the thought will then vanish from you like a fart in the I-5 wind.
Roadside attractions aren’t something you’ll generally consider working into your paddy wagon itinerary or convince your Greyhound driver to pull over for — in fact, the thought of a roadside attraction is probably off-putting to you unless someone can guarantee that Chevy Chase and the entire Griswald family will be there to keep things interesting. Unfortunately, this thought process is what will keep you from taking exit 216 to Brownsville, Ore., and continuing on the 3.4 miles leading to what is perhaps Oregon’s most impressive roadside attraction.
“Daddy was building this at 62, when the rest of us retire,” Nancy Bergerson says as she lifts a dying old flashlight up to one of several enormous chunks of red agate protruding from the walls of Living Rock Studios. The weak bulb of Nancy’s flashlight proves enough to illuminate the rock within the confines of the dark, cold, and rather castle-like building. Her frail arm moves the flashlight along the wall from rock to rock, allowing each one to glow individually as she unexpectedly gasps with excitement that you’ve come to tour her father’s creation.
“Daddy did it to glorify the Lord. I’m just glad I’m showing it at this age, and not building it.” What she’s showing is an 800-ton art studio made entirely of rock, cement, petrified wood and one uniquely installed hunk of railroad track. After suffering three strokes and a heart attack in 1964, Howard Taylor decided to get to work on this incredible project. By October of 1985, he had finished building the studio out of a massive amount of donated and self-accumulated rare stone and filled it with his extensive collection of over 100 bird paintings, flawless wooden carvings, early pioneer and Calapooya Indian artifacts, and a unique arrangement of paintings that offer a historical account of Oregon’s logging industry. Essentially this studio is an artistic embodiment of all things Oregon. Oh yeah…and the Lord.
Nancy is the eldest of Taylor’s three daughters, living in Goshen, Ore., but she spends the hours of 10am-5pm every Tuesday-Saturday in Brownsville, showing Living Rock Studios to all those who pass through. While the studio is ideal for any class trip or artsy afternoon outing, Nancy expresses frustration: “We really do see very, very few members of the community coming here,” she says, which is unfortunate, considering the hundreds of visitors the neighboring Linn County Historic Museum sees every month.
Describing the experience of an afternoon at Living Rock Studios proves challenging for all those who visit, but I’ll do my best: initially things feel pretty creepy. This isn’t a museum where you open the door and enter into some lobby with a front desk and a wall of pamphlets. As with any medieval castle, you ring the doorbell. After several minutes a sweet elderly woman (who you’re not entirely sure won’t take you into the back and murder you) answers the door wearing many layers. She’s very excited you’re here, and she throws a few more logs into the woodstove that sits in the front room. From here you can see a large tree trunk-like structure made entirely of petrified wood in the middle of the room that blends into the staircase leading up to the studio’s second story. Laminated Bible quotes are sprinkled throughout the displays, they coincide nicely with the occasional mentioning of the Lord. To your left is a gift shop whose sales do not appear to be booming, and beyond that sits an intriguing back yard scene.
Nancy takes you out back, and the tour begins. The yard is simultaneously cluttered with beautiful rock arrangements and general back-yard junk, not to mention two enormous, mysterious solar panels that aren’t connected to anything. But it’s gorgeous—there is a garden, a greenhouse, and a large working fountain made from petrified wood. The scene doesn’t evoke that “tourist roadside attraction” vibe whatsoever, and it truly begins to feel as though you’ve been invited into the home of a family who has devoted their life to their father’s artistic vision.
The most captivating part of the tour is the four Biblical scenes recreated using extremely thin slices of jade, agatized palm wood, onyx, obsidian, and various other colorful stones that Taylor carefully cut into translucence with his diamond saw. Each image is built into the wall with a light shining behind it, creating a stained glass effect.
Nancy proceeds to show you into a small cave inside of the front room’s massive tree trunk. This area houses Taylor’s extensive collection of crystals, cemented into its walls among the rock and petrified wood. Overhead sits approximately four feet of crooked railroad track that warrants a single question: how the fuck did he get this in here?
Finally, homegirl will lead you up the spiraling, wheelchair-accessible ramp to the building’s second story. Along the wall to your right are seventeen framed and mounted life-size birds of prey oil paintings, and embedded into the wall on your left sit rows of vintage Taster’s Choice coffee jars filled with rare gems for your viewing pleasure. Upstairs you’ll see the extent of Howard Taylor’s collection of wooden carvings—one particularly striking mermaid carving serves as the official geocache* visual of Living Rock Studios. One particularly interesting feature of the upstairs tour is the 3×2’ rotating logging book created by Daddy that offers up a bit of the Northwest’s logging history. The book requires a special turntable to operate, and each wood-framed page features neat, hand-painted text along with an oil painted illustration. In fact, Nancy explained that her daughter, who functions as Living Rock’s web designer, has digitally recreated Howard Taylor’s specific printing style: “It’s like a font…she’s made a Daddy font, so she can print in Daddy on the website.” Now that’s some post-life Daddy dedication.
Despite Living Rock Studios’ rich display of art, history, geology, and general funkiness, the road to Brownsville is one seldom traveled. However, now that you’ve been enlightened through the power of the Oregon Voice, I would encourage you to make the 30-mile trek to witness Howard Taylor’s preserved masterpiece. Once you get past the creepiness of an elderly woman religiously referring to her father as Daddy, this place is pretty fucking cool.
*Geocaching is a world-wide treasure hunting game that uses GPS-enabled devices to locate specific coordinates and find said location’s geocache. Sounds like some serious Daddy activity to me.