Seattle alternative arts icon, sculptor, conceptual artist and award-winning lecturer James L. Acord, Jr. died on Saturday, January 8th. He was 67. For decades, he was my best friend.
The  Thursday before he died, I showed my wife Judy the inside title page of my book of sea chanties. It was signed “FV Misty Dawn – 1981” by Jim. We went back into the two decades before that.
Since Acord’s passing only a few tributes or obituaries have been publicly published.  In Seattle, KUOW-FM arts reporter, Marcy Sillman produced a short, shallow appreciation on the 14th.  Jon Michaud at The New Yorker wrote a blog tribute to accompany the magazine’s gesture of making the first half of the two-part Acord portrait for that magazine by Seattle musicologist, Philip Schuyler, back in 1992.  Here’s an excerpt from Michaud:
Over his long career, which began when he was a teen-ager, Acord, who was sixty-six, produced work using a wide variety of materials, including salt, granite, gold, silver, and steel, but he was perhaps best known for the decades he spent working with radioactive substances. An altar boy in his youth, Acord later spent time as a ranch hand in Nebraska, a stone carver in Barre, Vermont, and an artist-in-residence in London, but he always returned to the Northwest. As a draughtsman, he was drawn to death and decay, creating studies of roadkill and other found corpses. At one time he also earned his living carving headstones. He was a skilled welder and a serious student of alchemy and nuclear science. In 1993, after a long campaign, he became the only individual in the United States to receive a Radioactive Materials License. (So pleased was Acord that he had the license number tattooed onto the back of his neck.) Prior to receiving this permission, Acord had run into regulatory difficulties for working with large quantities of another radioactive substance: Mango Red Fiesta pottery, which contained uranium in its glaze.
Last weekend, a few dozen of Acords’ Seattle artist friends and others attended an afternoon wake for Jim at a Seattle restaurant-gallery.  I attended via Skype.  There will be a much more detailed memorial for him in mid-March, most likely at the Fremont Fine Arts Foundry, a building Acord helped construct.
A memorial website with numerous links to existing material has been set up by Seattle high tech executive, Janet Galore, who curated some of Acord’s 1990s era shows at alternative galleries and other venues.  The site also links to a new flickr gallery that contains a rapidly growing set of images from over a dozen contributors, that will help document Acord’s long, fascinating and strange odyssey as the only fine artist ever to be granted a license to use nuclear materials in his work.
Seattle author Fred Moody’s description of his obsession with one of Acord’s masterworks, The Monstrance and Me, is a masterpiece of art lover’s mania.
The centerpiece of Acord’s life work was perhaps his reaching out to the community of nuclear scientists in the engineering and technology center based around the Hanford Works in the tri-cities region of eastern Washington. He arrived in Richland at the end of the cold war. Though he didn’t expect scientists there to be interested in his ideas, they were.
Acord began, with his Richland years, to reach out to both artists and scientists on nuclear issues, ecological realities, and cooperation between diverging interest groups.
I watched him address a convention of nuclear scientists in Richland in 1995, after Jim, sculptor Peter Bevis and I had come back from a two-day bird survey along the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River in late January. We were also surreptitiously taking measurements of radiation in the small, winter-time streams in the highly restricted area known as “N Reactor Springs.” We were cold, famished, dirtily grizzled and exhausted.
Right off the river, Jim grabbed a white shirt out of the back of his Volvo, as Pete and I muscled Jim’s boat back onto the trailer. Acord sort of stuffed the white shirt inside his Carhharts, fidgeted with cold, numb fingers, loosely tying one of his two ties, and we headed over to the convention.
When we got to the hall, full of well-dressed scientists, I felt out of place. Jim went around the gathering, shaking many hands, laughing, patting eminent scientists on their shoulders, as they glad-handed him as some sort of messenger from a distant community of long-lost relatives. I was surprised how affable all these guys were toward him. We ate.
Near the end of dinner, Jim was introduced. His talk included a slide show and video splashed across him, and the wall above. Although Acord started out slowly, almost painstakingly, eventually his sense of humor and deeper sense of history had the audience’s full attention. People began to nod affirmatively as he made trenchant points.
He ended up with a three-minute standing ovation. One scientist sitting at my table told me “This never happens at our conventions.” He wanted to meet Jim. Immediately.
Through the 1990s, Acord worked on projects to attempt to convince the nuclear industry of the long-term dangers posed by the ways nuclear waste is stored. The methods he used to try to do this were manifold. His boldly unique proposal to transmute technetium 99 to ruthenium 100 as part of a transformative work of art was looked upon seriously. Not in the USA, but in the UK and at CERN. Here’s a description by The Guardian‘s Chris Arnot, of the way Acord presented the project at a 1999 exhibit in the UK:
His exhibits in Nottingham are purely symbolic. They’re housed in an old wash-house, where Acord likes the dim lighting and the church-like aura on the bare walls. “I can’t help feeling,” he says, “that today’s nuclear industry is not unlike the Church of the 12th and 13th centuries. We have a priesthood living in remote areas, interacting only with each other. Yet these are the people who make decisions for you and me.”
Using this religious analogy, he has created three wooden boxes shaped like church windows and designed to hold symbolic relics of the nuclear industry, much as medieval reliquaries contained alleged fragments of the cross or locks of Christ’s hair. Each reliquary is fastened to the wall at about the same height as a pub dartboard. On the inside of the doors, though, are mathematical formulae or scientific information. Did you know that there are 17 isotopes of sodium having mass numbers from 19 to 34?
Or that in the 20s and 30s, uranium was used for decoration? It bestowed a bright glaze on innocent household items like the red Fiestaware salt cellars that Acord has mounted here on a dark background.
There’s a message here about the dangers of radiation and the loss of innocence of the “goodies” in their battle against the “baddies” during the second world war, when all uranium was confiscated for weapons production. But I doubt I’d have seen it had the artist not been talking me through it. Explanatory panels are noticeable by their absence. Acord works at the frontier between art and science. “Like all artists, I skipped as many maths classes as possible at school,” he admits. “But when I moved to Hanford, I realised that the only way to gain respect from nuclear scientists was to learn their language. It took me three years and it was the toughest thing I’ve ever done. The scientists and engineers were laying bets that I wouldn’t pass. In the end, I scraped through in all my grades.”
What’s on the blackboard is his formula for transmuting radioactive technetium 99 into safe ruthenium 100 – “eminently suitable for the creation of art,” he says. “I’m not saying this is something that could be economical in the long term, but as a metaphor for our nuclear age it’s perfect.” Somehow he persuaded the physics department at Imperial College, London, that what it needed was a community artist.
Thanks to Imperial, Acord now has access to a small-scale reactor. But his most audacious scheme yet remains unrealised. He wants to build a nuclear Stonehenge in Hanford. “I feel the site should become a national sacrifice area. I want a sculpture park to show future generations what we’ve done and to warn them not to drink the water or grow crops hereabouts.”
James L. Acord’s slide shows were legendary.  I attended several, beginning in 1981, and produced five, including one in January 2000, in Wasilla, Alaska, of all places.
Although his health deteriorated seriously after a 2003 heart attack, he continued to present internationally, up through mid-2010.  He was planning 2011 projects in Barcelona Spain, and at the Carnegie-Mellon Institute.
Here is one of the last available presentations Acord made, at a February 2010 conference in Barcelona, The Influencers:
Part One:

James Acord at The Influencers from The Influencers festival on Vimeo.

Part Two:

James Acord at The Influencers 2010 (2) from The Influencers festival on Vimeo.

Part Three:

James Acord at The Influencers 2010 (3) from The Influencers festival on Vimeo.

Part Four:

James Acord at The Influencers 2010 (4) from The Influencers festival on Vimeo.



Alaska progressive activist, notorious composer and firedoglake devotee.