In the summer of 1993 I was working as a sales clerk at The Body Shop in Faneuil Hall in Boston. I had graduated from Emerson College with a degree in creative writing, and here I was selling Peppermint Foot Lotion and Banana Shampoo. But it was full of fun people and loud music and it was a company I felt proud to shovel bath balls for.
One of our quirkier products was a line of colorful Endangered Species Soaps, each of which benefited a different environmental charity. Each day I would refill the bins of okapis, green turtles, rhinos and polar bears. The most popular was the blue whale, which benefited a non-profit here in Massachusetts called the Long-Term Research Institute (now Ocean Alliance). We had been visited by the Director of Ocean Research, Iain Kerr, two years before when he gave a lively talk and slideshow to the staff about the whale research expeditions he had led. If you don’t know him, Iain is a Scottish-born ball of energy who will have you emptying your wallet and volunteering to cook for a crew of 14 on rough seas before you come to your senses. It’s safe to say he made an impression.
On an August afternoon, as I was filling perfume bottles or performing some other sticky, smelly task, the door swung open and a man and woman came in looking more purposeful than the usual Faneuil Hall tourists. The man I recognized immediately, even though it had been two years and he had shaved off his captain’s beard. I said without thinking, “You’re Iain, the Whale Guy,” (because that’s what we called him). He looked a little taken aback since he had no idea who I was, and he introduced Sarah Haney, a good friend, supporter, and one of the inventors of Trivial Pursuit who he had brought to meet the owner of our franchise.
By chance, the owner was out, but I had just returned from a trip to England and Scotland having won a Body Shop competition. The prize was to tour the headquarters and stay in the Scottish castle of founder Anita Roddick, so in that moment I was more than just a soap slinger, I was a world-traveling, prize-winning…about-to-be-homeless-and-unemployed 21-year old, because I was about to leave my fiancé and quit my job to travel and pursue a career in art.
I don’t remember most of what Iain said to me in that conversation, but I do remember he said this, “I see the most amazing things in my travels but I have no one to share them with.” When he left the store I turned to my manager and found myself saying, “I am going to see him again.” She replied, “Well, good luck, he’s off on an expedition to the Galapagos.”
“What’s the Galapagos?” I asked.
She smiled, “They’re islands, here,” and she showed me on a map where they were in the Pacific.
This was going to be harder than I thought. Here’s what I had working against me: I was a store clerk, he was an ocean explorer; I was 21, he was 36; he was a divemaster; I got a 0 on my beginner swim class test; he was a whale expert, I slept in a Dramamine haze through my first and only whale watch. Regardless, I found his business card in the owner’s Roladex and took it home to brainstorm.
Here’s what I came up with: I would call him and ask if I could paint his portrait since I was a struggling artist trying to build a portfolio and he was a subject with a compelling story. I would fall for that, wouldn’t you? That would at least give me an excuse to meet with him. Little did I know how well my line would work.
A few months later I found myself on a boat in the Galapagos with a PBS film crew and Bill Kreutzmann, the drummer from the Grateful Dead, who I had personally escorted from Ecuador because I KNOW WHERE THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS ARE. We’ve traveled to countless ridiculous places, had a lifetime’s worth of adventures, raised a kid, three dogs, four guinea pigs, and we live in an artist’s cottage overlooking Gloucester Harbor with this portrait on the wall:
[Featured artwork: Iain, 1994. Colored pencil on Canson Mi-Teintes Sand paper]