Portraits and Puppetry Personalize Volunteer Experience
When I met Maria Pinto, a volunteer at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Seattle, we shook hands and exchanged names. Then, she tilted her head and asked if she could do a portrait of me. It was February 2019 and I was finally starting my position as Community Volunteer Ambassador at Klondike after delays from the longest U.S. government shutdown in history and Seattle’s various snowstorms. After a whirlwind of introductions and meeting new faces, Maria stuck out because of that question. I didn’t know what to expect but I agreed and soon found that Maria has a special reason for creating portraits of others.
Maria started volunteering at Klondike in June 2018, fulfilling a promise to her late husband, Lucio. They had lived in Seattle since emigrating from Bolivia in the 1970s with their children. Maria held a degree in fine arts but wanted to improve her English after moving. She started with lessons at Seattle Community College before transferring to the University of Washington.
Following school, Maria started working at the well-known Opus 204 boutique on Broadway, doing alterations and eventually creating designs. Her patience with others was noticed and Maria was encouraged to apply for a teaching position at the Art Institute of Seattle.
“I interviewed and they offered me the job the next day!” Maria recalled. The job turned into a 27-year career teaching fashion at the Institute.
Unfortunately, a stroke brought Maria’s career at the Art Institute to an end. She went through physical therapy and gradually regained her balance and coordination; however, her memory was not right. She felt like she lost her ability to create art but was afraid to voice her concerns to her medical and therapy team. At the same time, her husband Lucio suddenly became sick and Maria directed her energy to caring for him.
“Before he died, he told me about how he had wanted to volunteer at the Klondike museum and that he wanted me to do it for him,” Maria remembered.
Two weeks after his funeral, Maria met with Klondike’s Chief of Interpretation, Julie Fonseca de Borges, and Park Ranger Kelsey Johnson to discuss volunteering options. Maria agreed to start in the visitor center that summer.
Volunteers at Klondike’s visitor center are essential in interpreting Seattle’s role in the Klondike Gold Rush as well as representing the National Park Service to its over 80,000 annual visitors. Some of Maria’s duties included greeting people, assisting students with scavenger hunts on field trips, and answering questions about the Pioneer Square neighborhood, Seattle, and other national parks. Maria quickly found herself constantly interacting with others.
“Klondike rescued me. I love coming in the morning and people knowing my name, asking how I am. Working here, you become young again,” she said of the community of people who work and volunteer at Klondike.
Maria said her favorite part of volunteering was helping youngsters complete the Junior Ranger Program. Maria even became an ambassador for the National Park Service in her community. She recalled a bus driver asking about her uniform on her commute home one day.
“After I told him about Klondike, I started carrying the park’s brochures to give people who were curious about my uniform,” Maria said. She also encouraged her friends at church to visit the park and learn about volunteer opportunities.
As Maria became familiar with the visitor center routine, she found occasional periods of down-time at the desk. One slow morning, Maria and other visitor center workers were waiting for a tour group to arrive at Klondike. While waiting, Maria found inspiration for her portraits in plain sight.
“I looked over at one of the museum photos of a Stampeder panning for gold in a stream and just started to sketch what I saw,” she said.
Maria was elated to discover her ability to draw had returned! Soon after, she asked one of the volunteers if she could take his photo from which to create a portrait. When she presented him with the final image, he was so excited, he sent a photo of it to his mom.
Soon enough, Maria was busy with portraits of other volunteers and staff. She found that sketching portraits provided vital mental therapy. Each portrait is unique. Maria prefers to capture her models in their natural positions, rather than forced and awkward poses.
While at Klondike, Maria completed over 37 portraits of staff, volunteers, and others who worked alongside her. For many people in the Klondike community, it’s the first portrait they have of themselves and a reminder of the healing power of art.
Earlier this year, Maria decided it was time to move out of Seattle to be closer to her family in Oregon. Before leaving Klondike, she wanted to share one more unique piece of art with her family of volunteers and staff. Over the years, Maria and Lucio had been a team of marionette creators. Together, they had created over 140 marionette dolls and even put on shows at Seattle Center.
Working with staff at Klondike and repurposing materials from old ranger uniforms, Maria created a park ranger marionette, lovingly dubbed “Chuck.” She led some staff and volunteers in a quick tutorial of how to move the marionette in a life-like way. Following Maria’s departure from Klondike, one of the youth volunteers inherited “Chuck” and is already busy crocheting a ranger hat for him.
As for the marionette dolls that she has kept throughout the years, they will be making the move with her and staying in the family. Maria smiled and said, “Luckily, my granddaughters love them and have already claimed them.”
After Maria moves, she looks forward to “being a fulltime grandma” and making up for lost time with her art. She speaks of wanting to make wedding dresses for her granddaughters who have recently started dating. Beyond her family, Maria hopes to find a way to create art for the community. Perhaps she will introduce children to handling marionette dolls as part of a summer camp. Or maybe she will find a volunteer position like what she had at Klondike so that she can continue her portraits. Regardless of what she ends up doing, Maria has emphasized the importance of using her artistic skills to give back during her retirement.
When it came time for my portrait, I followed Maria around the building as she searched for the best lighting. She didn’t boss me around or force me into a fake pose. Instead, she asked me a few questions about my work, family, and other activities. It was all very casual. I felt my body relax and my normal mannerisms surfaced during our conversation. Upon receiving the final product, I was thrilled with Maria’s interpretation of me! I’d never had my portrait drawn and had to share it with my parents, who were excited that someone had wanted to do this for me.
Maria and portraits are strongly associated for many of us at Klondike, but more than that, she was someone who cared about her community. She handmade a quilt for a park ranger’s new baby, would ask about the “sleepy eyes” she would find on tired workers, and comment that “we need more dancing” in the office. My portrait not only reminds me of a dear friend but how volunteer positions may be standardized, but the individuals within them are truly unique.
Contributor Carole Holmson is a Community Volunteer Ambassador at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, located at 319 2nd Avenue South (2nd at Jackson) in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood. New volunteers are welcome at Klondike—for information, e-mail email@example.com.
Portraits by Maria Pinto used in the montage at top of page and all other photos courtesy of Carole Holmson.
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of AgeWise King County.