Valerie Wahl and Cindy Short created the Spokane Bottle Project as a space for sharing stories and making connections prompted by a collection of early 20th century bottles and their Spokane collector.
Until 2022, Val worked at a museum doing work focused on the display,
interpretation and care of rare objects. This is how she first met the bottle collector and how she came to appreciate his unique collection. These days she enjoys, among other pursuits, experimenting with drawing on a multitude of surfaces and
exploring themes of human relationship to Earth.
Cin uses collaborative projects, public performance, and various traditional art-making conventions to connect with our personal stories and sense place, and is obsessed with plants, trees, all creatures, and taco and soup making.
ABOUT THE COLLECTOR:
Working as a museum collection manager, I was often contacted by people offering things that they thought might have historical value. One day I received a call from a guy with a collection of old bottles. He’d been through a strenuous cancer treatment but was now feeling well enough to explore community interest in his collection, worried what would happen to it when he was gone. When asked how many bottles, he replied “At least 10,000.”
The museum accepted a few of the bottles, but I couldn’t shake my interest in Brian Martin and his story: how did he amass such a collection? Why did he suffer the danger and discomfort of digging deep holes in an old dumpsite? From a museum perspective, I was intrigued in the collection as “material culture,” finding the recovered objects, so long buried, evocative.
I learned that Brian dug his first bottle in 1986, having noticed other diggers near the river near downtown Spokane. After finding an old whiskey crock in perfect condition on his first try, he was hooked. Through the 1980s and 90s Brian quietly excavated, washed and sorted thousands of discarded glass bottles and other items from the site where the Riverpoint Campus is now located. **
The collection dates from 1900-1930, a time before city planners, environmental science or waste management, when Spokane’s trash accumulated in unofficial dumpsites. Brian described his technique: dig a hole as deep as 12 feet, then dig laterally upon finding a layer of interesting material. He hauled his treasures home by motorcycle or bicycle.
It seemed Brian was born to dig. A landscaper by trade, he chose in his spare time to dig deep holes in an old dumpsite, looking for stuff thrown away by people long gone. As the collection grew and he needed storage space, he excavated a basement under his modest house – by hand - one bucket at a time. He once told me that while he slept he dreamt subterranean dreams.
Brian learned ways to minimize the dangers of descending into deep, possibly unstable holes through layers of rusty metal and broken glass. However another less visible threat revealed itself when, in the 1990s, samples taken in areas where Brian had been digging identified heavy metals and carcinogens in the soil. Digging in the toxic soil may have led to serious health issues that Martin later faced.
Fascinated by the objects, I volunteered to help him re-organize the collection on my own time. In the end the collection numbered about 15,000 bottles and other items of glass, ceramic, metal, etc, items that could withstand being first burned and then buried for 100 years. Brian once again held each item he’d hauled home, and the resulting work supported proposals for permanent displays at Saranac Commons and Providence Sacred Heart Cardiac ICU, as well as a temporary installation at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture.
This interview was recorded in 2013 by Scott Dethlefs in the midst of the work. Scott recently provided editing so that we could hear Brian’s story in his own words.
It is our wish to share what remains of the collection in a manner that honors Brian’s work and values: his concern for the health of the Spokane River and his desire for others to understand a truth that haunts every item that we buy, use, and then discard:
"There is no such thing as away"
**An important note: In addition to the dangers of digging into toxic soil, objects associated with others times and cultures are considered archaeological or cultural resources. Archeologists, as well as tribal representatives, ask that we leave objects found in the landscape undisturbed so that they can be assessed where found. Objects, and the locations where found, are protected by federal and state laws.
Brian Martin may have been unaware of such laws, but we are not.
Enjoy the collection, but leave things where they lay.