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John Hurley is known as the driftwood artist. You may have met him at an outdoor market selling his painted clam shells and river rocks or demonstrating his techniques at a gallery event. Ambitious and creative are just a couple of descriptions for the 94-year-old Tumwater resident. One might add prolific artist too since his works are on display in Edmonds, Lacey, Olympia and in his Tumwater front yard. Not only a talented artist, John Hurley is an inspiration for seizing opportunity and living life fully.

John Hurley painting rocks at a table
John Hurley’s art is featured at Gallery Boom in Lacey. He did painting demonstrations and chatted with visitors at the gallery’s anniversary celebration. Photo credit: Rebecca Sanchez

John Hurley is a Notable Athlete, Navy Fireman and Career Electrician

Originally from the Midwest, Hurley was drafted into the Navy early out of high school, made his way to San Diego and halfway across the world. “I spent about 10 or 12 months on the light cruiser Astoria and toured the South Pacific,” Hurley says. While in the Navy, he made the newspapers as a boxer. He advanced to the finals in the All-Navy Boxing Tournament at the San Diego Coliseum after he knocked out his welterweight opponent. Athletics was already one of his fortes having lettered in three different high school sports.

Aboard the USS Astoria, his daily job was quite different. “I was a fireman down in the engine room, kept the engine going, and on watch duty,” Hurley says. “I’d have to go check the temperature of the bearings on the shaft. The shaft in that light cruiser was 18 inches thick. It had to be checked all the time to make sure it didn’t warp.”

After the Navy, Hurley headed north. “I got discharged,” he says. “A buddy and I hitchhiked up the coast. It took two days and three nights to get up to Washington.” After accepting an invitation to stay for a family wedding, he stayed longer and got a job.

John Hurley and wife Bonnie, standing together in matching pink square dancing outfits
Hurley married for a second time, at age 80 and took up dancing seven days per week with his wife Bonnie. The two dressed up for ballroom dancing and square dancing. Bonnie made matching outfits for the events, and before leaving each time, they set up the camera for a time delayed photo of themselves. Photo courtesy: John and Bonnie Hurley

“My job ended, and I went up a block or two away to the Edison Day School and got in the following year as an electrician’s trainer, and that’s when I became an electrician,” he continues. “I spent 42.5 years as an electrician all around the Seattle area. When work got slow, I had to go up to the refinery at Cherry Point for six months, and when that ended the work was still slow in Seattle. So, I hitched on with three other guys that were going to New York because they were building the Twin Towers. I got on right downtown at the McGraw Hill 52 story book building. I went to the YMCA and stayed there, and we could walk to work and back. It was a pretty good stint.”

Hurley’s Art Displays Elements of Puget Sound

After retiring, Hurley got active with painting. A very popular piece at Brackett’s Landing North, next to the Edmond’s ferry dock, gained media attention. He painted the familiar black and white killer whale pattern on a large, orca shaped piece of driftwood. People have sat astride it for photo opportunities since 1994, sharing their snapshots on the My Edmonds Orca Facebook page.

Hurley paints every day. Anything from natural materials such as clam shells, driftwood and rock to man-made materials like tiles and woven mats. He has even done detailed painting on animal skulls. Lately, neighbors pay him to repaint their garden statuary, and he is happy to oblige.

Which inspires which first, the idea or the material, is not a solid pattern. “It just comes naturally, I think,” Hurley says. “Whatever appeal fits it.” His Pacific Northwest scenes are quite detailed, including Puget Sound ferries and seagulls flying over white caps. Hurley paints the traditional subjects too, such as tall ships and mountain scenes reflecting across lakes.

John Hurley artwork: an orca painted on a piece of driftwood hanging on a wall
One of his works, a driftwood orca conceptually similar to the one show here, gained media attention in Edmonds, becoming a popular feature in social media photo posts. Photo credit: Rebecca Sanchez

“They’re all hand-picked,” Hurley says of his driftwood and rocks. “That’s a lot of collecting. All my driftwood I got at the oceans, or up on Camano Island. There’s a big spot up there that has a whole bunch of them.” Impressive are the large pieces adorned with heavy rope. “Some of these I could find naturally, about half of a boom, and some of them would be the whole boom, but it would be 90 feet long. I’d have to go there with a chainsaw and cut off the four feet of the top that I wanted. Some of them were pretty heavy to get home.”

Tumwater Artist Creates Positive Energy

Contrasting the heavy wood, lady bugs and buzzy-bees, as he calls them, entered his repertoire. “I was staying with my daughters while I was recuperating from pneumonia a couple of times. When I got well enough, I’d go to the rivers and pick up small rocks. A friend of mine showed me a picture of small ladybugs, and so I copied those and put them on rocks, and I just can’t quit.”

John Hurley’s art creates a positive atmosphere everywhere it is. To see some of his work, visit the Gallery Boom in Lacey or the seasonal Delphi Craft and Swap Meet at the McLane Grange. His paintings can also be seen at Halyard’s restaurant in Olympia. And, the next time you are at the Edmonds ferry dock, check out the famous whale.

a painting on a piece of driftwood with rope wrapped around it by John Hurley
Impressive are some of Hurley’s works of large driftwood pieces adorned with heavy rope. In contrast to the heavy wood, stone lady bugs and buzzy-bees are also part of his repertoire. Photo credit: Rebecca Sanchez
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