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Merchant sailor trades icebergs for artist's easel

Take another look at that mild mannered librarian at Olympic Collegeís Haselwood Library.

Notice how she stacks books like a sailor coils rope? Notice how she navigates up and down the aisles like an old salt running a rain swept deck? Notice how she spots a book title from across the room like an eagle spying a land mass over a vast expanse of wind-tossed sea?

Before joining the staff of the library six years ago, artist Michelle Van Berkom was a career sailor ó not in the Navy but as a civilian. Sheís sailed the world from the Arctic to the Antarctic and many points between, and has recently created a visual ìmemoirî of her adventures.

Her one-woman show, ìVoyage to Antarctica,î will feature her bright and evocative watercolors throughout December at Bremertonís Collective Visions Gallery, Fourth Street and Pacific Avenue.

There will be an opening reception for the artist at 5 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7. A 10 percent discount will be offered on all art during the reception.

Berkom, 44, was born in North Dakota and raised in Minneapolis. She studied art at the UW and then took a break to do some sailing with a boyfriend.

That break turned into eight years aboard a Spencer 44 ìketchî sailing the high seas.

ìI was just a boat bum,î she commented with a laugh. ìBut at the age of 30, I decided Iíd better figure out a way to make a living.î

In 1989, Berkom joined the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, a federal agency under the aegis of the Department of Commerce. She signed on as a lowly deck hand on NOAAís scientific ship, the Surveyor. The shipís first voyage was to Siberia and the Arctic, then onto the Antarctic ó at the opposite end of the globe.

NOAA ships survey ocean ecosystems for the federal government to pass along valuable information to fisheries and scientists.

ìOn the voyage (to the Antarctic) I found myself haunted by another expedition that took place some 75 years earlier ó that of the Endurance,î she said. ìThe British explorer, Sir Earnest Shackleton, set sail in August of 1914 with a crew of 27 men. The Endurance was wrecked in the ice pack of the Weddell Sea, sending its crew on an impossible two-year odyssey across the ice and Antarctic seas. But not a man was lost.î

Berkom said that as she revisited many of the landmarks of the Enduranceís epic voyage, ìI felt as if I were living the story myself. I felt a strong kinship with these remarkable seamen and their story.î

In 1999, when Berkom received her Antarctic Service Medal along with many of her shipmates, ìI thought of the Polar Medal awarded so long ago to the crew of the Endurance, and how much they had gone through to receive it.î

As an artist, Berkom was deeply affected by her voyages and by the histories of other global adventurers. She never stopped making sketches of what she witnessed, and on quitting the sailing life a few years ago, she began turning those small sketches into watercolors.

ìI experienced some extreme weather on my voyagesî to the Arctic and Antarctic, she added. ìThe biggest roll the ship ever suffered was about 33 degrees. Crewmen were thrown all over the place.î

ìSome of my most striking memories were of the icebergs. You can have no idea how big they are ëtil youíve seen one. Theyíre amazing.î

Berkom is one librarian whose real-life adventures rival those between the covers of the books she oversees at the library.

Berkom married Brian Yelland, a marine engineer, in 1992. She now stays in port while he sails the seas.

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