Marie Bohlen, a consummate artist known for her nature illustrations and a founding matriarch of Greenpeace, died January 5th at age 89, passing away peacefully at her home in Courtenay, British Columbia.
Besides a distinguished career as an illustrator and her seminal role in the founding of Greenpeace, Marie will be remembered for her deeply-lived testimony as a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers) to the values of pacifism, simplicity, social activism and speaking truth to power.
Born in Pennsylvania on July 4th, 1924, she graduated from the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia and became a well-known illustrator of children’s and nature books. “North American Birds” — first published in 1963 by Women’s Day magazine and later reissued by Prentice-Hall in 1969 — includes 300 full-color paintings and earned acclaim from art critics. The Pittsburgh Press noted: “In addition to their striking beauty, Mrs. Bohlen’s portraits give details of plumage and marking seldom captured by even the most accurate cameras.”
A lifelong pacifist, Marie vowed the day her son Paul Nonnast was born that he would never go to war. Her profound reverence for all living creatures informed her daily existence on the Greenpeace farm which she and second husband Jim Bohlen founded on Denman Island. She’d sit on the deck waiting patiently as deer approached to eat apples from her hands. Later, in the Courtenay, British Columbia home where the couple spent their final years, she kept the blinds drawn lest a bird mistake the clean windows for clear sky. Bill Darnell, who coined the phrase “green peace,” remembers Marie caring for spiders and wild rodents.
Tall and broad-shouldered with an upright posture and chignon-styled hair, Marie was a beautiful, dignified woman who was always simply dressed — often in jeans. Her outward appearance was congruent with an inner strength and the simplicity she embraced, right down to the spare Shaker chairs and benches that furnished the Bohlens’ house. Bob Hunter, another early Greenpeacer who went on to become first president of the organisation once it went global, wrote that Marie had an “iron will” and “radiated power;” qualities which were softened by the warmth that exploded in her broad smile, resonant laugh and nurturing spirit.
Marie’s dedication to social activism and pacifism resonated with Jim when the two met in 1957 at a local meeting. They married in 1965, on July 4th: Jim’s birthday as well as Marie’s. She convinced him to join the Sierra Club, and brought him to his first Quaker meeting. Her influence sharpened his growing commitment to peace and environmentalism and he resigned his job as an engineer for a defense contractor to seek employment that paralleled his values.
In 1967, with the Vietnam War raging, the couple left the United States for Canada to shelter Marie’s 19-year-old son Paul Nonnast (from her first marriage) from the Vietnam war draft. They also brought with them two other children, Margot (14) and Lance (11), from Jim’s first marriage. Arriving in Vancouver, the Bohlens went to an antiwar march, looked for the Quaker banner, and found two other former east coast Americans, Irving and Dorothy Stowe, holding it. The couples bonded, beginning a lifelong friendship rooted in activism, and in 1969 — together with UBC law student Paul Cote and several activists including Bill Darnell — they founded the “Don’t Make a Wave Committee” to protest atomic blasts on Amchitka Island. The group soon expanded to include Bob and Zoe Hunter, journalists Ben and Dorothy Metcalfe and a diverse base of other like-minded souls. The Committee changed its name to Greenpeace several years later, and an international eco-phenomenon was born.
Marie and Jim were also prime founders of the first chapter of the Sierra Club of BC. Avid hikers and outdoor enthusiasts, they brought an experience-based passion to early environmental causes. And at a time when men still predominated in activist circles in North America, Marie’s strong and resonant voice set a bold example, empowering succeeding generations of women.
Marie’s further contributions to the founding of Greenpeace have been well documented. She and son Paul created the first Greenpeace button, which bore the stamp of her artistry. Forbidding black outlines and funky font characterized many buttons of the Sixties, but this one spoke with a softer tongue, sandwiching the word “Greenpeace” between forest-green ecology and peace symbols rendered in an elegant clarity against a soft unbordered yellow background. Marie, Jim, Lance, and friends sold these buttons for 25 cents as an initial fundraising effort towards chartering a boat to sail to Amchitka Island to protest the atomic blasts.
It was also Marie — inspired by 1950’s Quaker anti-nuclear protest voyages to Bikini Atoll — who had the vision to propose that the Don’t Make a Wave Committee sail a boat to “confront the bomb.” This bold strategy of seagoing “bearing witness” voyages remains a vital part of Greenpeace International campaigns today, as per the 2013 voyage of the Arctic 30 to expose Russian preparations to drill in the Arctic. Marie was also slated to sail on the voyage to Amchitka, along with Lou Hogan, but in the final cull women were disallowed. Captain Cormack held the traditional view that women were bad luck.
As an artist, Marie walked in beauty, and she epitomized the Quaker expression to “walk in the light.” Her artistry and passionate commitment to the Earth have earned her a singular place in the annals of history. She will be well missed.
She is survived by two stepchildren, Lance Bohlen of Seattle, Washington and Margot Bradley of Philadelphia Pennsylvania, as well as three grandchildren.
Barbara Stowe is the daughter of Irving and Dorothy Stowe, founding members of Greenpeace.
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