John Kalama Portrait

Portrait of John Kalama, legendary town namesake, featured in the John Kalama room at McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge.

Portrait of John Kalama

Room 214, McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge
See the finished room  |  See Marie painting the headboard

Custom painted portrait of John Kalama for McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge.

When McMenamins offered me the chance to paint a portrait of John Kalama, I was thrilled! McMenamins is a popular chain of restaurants, breweries, and historic hotels based in Portland, Oregon. Each facility is adorned with custom artwork that depicts its history.

Kalama-ites were very excited when McMenamins decided to build a hotel, restaurant and brewery on the waterfront in the City of Kalama where I live!  McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge is located at the Port of Kalama, on the Columbia River waterfront alongside a walking path that parallels the Port’s beaches, parks, picnic areas, marina and historical museum. In my opinion, it is Southwest Washington’s best kept secret about to go big time

The facility is modeled after the historic Pioneer Inn in Lahaina, Maui, because Kalama is a Hawaiian name, and the legendary namesake of the town was Hawaiian. Thus, one of the lodging rooms is named John Kalama. And inside it, my painting of John Kalama!

Legend, folklore and various historical narratives say that the town of Kalama, Washington was named after John Kalama, one of the many native Hawaiians (Kanakas) who came to the Pacific Northwest to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company. 

Company  rosters indicate he was first employed there in 1837 and worked periodically until 1863, performing labor jobs at Fort Nisqually near Tacoma, at Fort Vancouver, and at the Cowlitz Farm. As such, he most likely piloted a canoe up and down the Columbia River, passing the mouth of the Kalama River and likely stopping to rest or trade at the Cowlitz Indian encampment there.  

He also had a Nisqually Indian wife Mary, and a son Peter, who went on to procreate future generations, according to census records. 

First idea sketch for custom painted portrait of John Kalama for McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge.

Initial Idea Sketch for John Kalama Painting

McMenamins’ historian provided me with fascinating background information, but no photographs. How does an artist paint a posthumous portrait with no photographs? All I know is that he was Hawaiian, worked for the HBC, and had a wife and child.

As history nerds know, legend and folklore doesn’t always match historical record. More often it’s based on beliefs, stories, myths or legends that have been repeated generation after generation.

As in the legend of John Kalama. We know he existed because of HBC records, we just don’t know if his given name was the inspiration for the town’s name because there is no historical documentation. Plus, there is the distortion of a translated language that is typically inherent in historical narrative. We know the original inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest; specifically Kalama, were Native Americans, and that they spoke their own languages. 

The name Calama, or Kalama is an Indian name meaning beautiful, stone, or pretty maiden. It was first mentioned in the Lewis and Clark Journals in 1806, and then later by Gabriel Franchere in his Narrative of a Voyage to the Northwest Coast of American, 1811-1814.

Second prepatory sketch for custom painted portrait of John Kalama for McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge.

Second Preparatory Sketch for John Kalama Painting

Franchere’s narrative mentions an Indian village called Thlakalamah, located on a small stream. In 1900, the book The New Pacific School Geography, in a chapter on Etymology of Georgraphic Place Names in Washington, stated the name Kalama was of Indian origin and meant stone.

“Kalama (Indian), a word of the same derivation as “calumet” and “cathlamet”, meaning stone.”

Then in 1910, Frederick Webb Hodge published a Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico that stated, “Thlakalama.” — A Chinookan tribe formerly residing at the mouth of Kalama r., Cowlitz co.

How did John Kalama end up the Town’s Namesake?

These publications, plus many more I haven’t mentioned leaves one wondering how John Kalama ended up being the town’s namesake. Maybe the language translation and the grapevine appropriated the word Thlakalamah or Calama into a word more familiar to the white man, like John Kalama. Yes, I can see how it very well could have been this way. 

Third prepatory sketch for custom painted portrait of John Kalama for McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge.

Third Preparatory Sketch for John Kalama Painting

Which returns me to my dilemma, how does an artist paint a portrait with nothing but a bit of narrative and HBC employment records? I drew, and drew, and drew some more, trying to bring out the Hawaiian-ness of the man people expect to be the namesake, based on what I was able to learn about Polynesian men based on Google searches. Namely, they are strong, barrel-chested, curly haired, stoutly built men with well defined Polynesian facial features.

The Opportunity

Another concept familiar to historians, is if there isn’t a story, what an author writes becomes the story. Similarly, if there isn’t a picture, what an artist paints becomes the picture. This was the biggest opportunity. Like molding clay, I used my drawing and painterly skills to invent what I wanted him to look like.  And as I read and drew, I came to understand not only his Hawaiian heritage, but also the greater heritage of the Cowlitz, Chinook and Nisqually tribes of our region.

Custom painted portrait of John Kalama for McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge.

John Kalama, his wife Mary, and son Peter

I chose to depict him as a friendly and strong Hawaiian man robed in the blanket of his employer, the Hudson’s Bay Company. He is gazing contemplatively into the distance, as if imagining his future. Beside him are his Nisqually Indian wife and son Peter, whose offspring produced many generations.

This family unit forms a compositional triangle, which I anchored with a tribal canoe and a paddle in his hand that he most certainly would have used to navigate up and down the Columbia River. The river bends, as it does at the mouth of the Kalama River, where he would have stopped to visit the Cowlitz encampment there.

Salmon, the most honored of fishes by Northwest Native Americans, are jumping in the river. They represent our region’s intrinsic connection to those peoples. The seagulls I added for excitement. They are flapping their wings above John’s head, cawing and celebrating as seagulls do. I like to imagine they are heralding his arrival!

I leave you to ponder the rest of the story.

The image of this man is of my own imagination, in spite of historical records that say his face was badly slashed and his nose almost entirely cut off in a drunken brawl. I chose not to depict him that way, because I don’t believe his ancestors would want to remember him that way. To them, he is their “kahu anela”, the Hawaiian word for guardian angel. Without him they would not exist, and without him, the town of Kalama would have been named something else. 

Aloha John!

Fourth preparatory sketch for custom painted portrait of John Kalama for McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge.

Fourth Preparatory Sketch for John Kalama Painting

Fifth preparatory sketch for custom painted portrait of John Kalama for McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge.

Fifth Preparatory Sketch for John Kalama Painting

Final drawing for custom painted portrait of John Kalama for McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge.

Final Drawing for John Kalama Painting