Mermaid’s sculptor is still at work — in the California desert

Kay Henkel left Edmonds nearly 40 years ago. She is still creating art — in Palm Springs.

Kay Henkel, 92, last week at her home in Palm Springs. (Lisa Klinger)

Kay Henkel, 92, last week at her home in Palm Springs. (Lisa Klinger)

PALM SPRINGS, California — Tacked on a bulletin board at the Desert Art Center was a touch of home.

There, 1,269 miles from Everett, was a clipping of a Herald “What’s Up With That?” story about a mermaid statue that had gone missing. And, tucked in a nondescript mobile home park on the edge of town, was the artist who created the siren of the sea.

What’s up with that?

It all started last summer, with an urgent request from 92-year-old Kay Henkel, who left Edmonds for desert life nearly 40 years ago. She wanted to know what happened to the 7-foot concrete mermaid she sculpted in 1974 near the Mukilteo waterfront where Arnies Restaurant is now.

“It took 10 bags of concrete mixed with sand and gravel,” Henkel said at the time. “For heaven’s sake, it’s an enormous concrete thing. I can’t imagine where it is now. I’m curious.”

This wasn’t some Bigfoot hunt. The mermaid was real, as evidenced by a 1974 newspaper photo of Henkel with her beautiful fish. Locals, including police and historians, lost track of it years ago.

Herald readers were asked to help solve the case of the missing mermaid. Ken Brown, a retiree in Lake Stevens, called in the tip: Henkel’s mermaid was soaking up the sun at a lodge in southern Arizona.

The mermaid formerly of Mukilteo is on the grounds of Secret Garden Inn in Tubac, Arizona, an artsy community 50 miles south of Tucson. Avalon Organic Gardens & Ecovillage operates the bed-and-breakfast started by the late Leila Pearsall as a vacation retreat. (Photo by ShaRu White)

The mermaid formerly of Mukilteo is on the grounds of Secret Garden Inn in Tubac, Arizona, an artsy community 50 miles south of Tucson. Avalon Organic Gardens & Ecovillage operates the bed-and-breakfast started by the late Leila Pearsall as a vacation retreat. (Photo by ShaRu White)

He said his sister, Leila, who commissioned the piece, moved the mermaid from Mukilteo to her house in Edmonds around 1980 and later to Tubac, Arizona, near Tucson, to open a bed-and-breakfast. After Leila died in 2014, the inn’s new owner kept the mermaid prominently on display and sent the Herald a photo as proof of cryptozoological art life.

Not only was the mermaid there, but also an ugly cousin of sorts — a ginormous clumpy reclining nude that Leila brought along, too. Henkel had made the nude as a joke to attract attention to her Edmonds art studio in the 1970s and dubbed it the “Virgin of Perrinville.” Readers chimed in saying they remembered it.

The mystery deepened.

Henkel was curious about what had become of her mermaid. But I was curious what had become of the artist.

I wanted to meet this maven who made mermaids and other wonders. So I called her up last week while in Palm Springs on a family vacation. Henkel said, “Come on over.”

I took my sister, an attorney who spends her days chasing legal loopholes, not roving mermaids. She needed an adventure. It was either that or go to the Coachella festival that was rocking the desert 30 miles away.

Beyoncé has nothing on Henkel.

The blonde sculptress shares her home with a stray tomcat named Lily and a housemate named Jerry.

“I need a man around to open a pickle jar,” Henkel said. Or twist open a bottle of wine, which Jerry did, then poured us each a heaping glass.

Her modest home is filled with statues, busts and body parts. The coffee table is festooned with figurines for sale. Her studio is a cluttered toolshop where she is often up to her elbows in clay.

Henkel is still going strong in Palm Springs, the former playground of Hollywood stars where streets are named after famous actors and mid-century modern houses are painted lime and pink. Where a vintage travel trailer draws more attention than a Millennial woman wearing only splashed paint (not even skivvies) strutting the main drag.

Mermaids and clumpy nudes would fit in just fine, but Henkel’s concrete phase is long over. She makes mostly bronze, clay and Duracast sculptures. Expressive, often whimsical, figures dancing, huddling, riding bikes, peeking in windows, sitting on benches, groping in an elevator.

She has the skills to pull off her next gig: a bust of President Donald Trump. “A man called today. It’s for a project, a comedy thing,” she said. “He wanted it done in a material that people could knock around.”

It’s a departure from Henkel’s usual requests to replicate people’s kids and grandkids.

“I did have a kiln, but I use the one at the art center,” she said. “It’s bigger and I can put large-sized children in it.”

That last sentence might sound weird coming from anyone else, but not this lively, lovely lady.

“She acts half her age,” said my envious sister, who acts twice her age.

Henkel credits the Edmonds Arts Festival, which turned 60 last year, with giving her support and exposure as a young married artist raising two daughters.

Her then-husband’s job took the couple from Edmonds to Palm Springs in 1979. He has since died. One daughter lives nearby. Another lives in Everett.

Henkel made a name for herself in Palm Springs, where she had an art gallery near the Sonny Bono statue. She said the former mayor of Palm Springs and ex of Cher bought one of her works, a series called the “Elevator” with about 20 people forming a 2-foot cube.

She has sold dozens of “Elevators” over the years, including one earlier this month for $1,400 at Desert Art Center, a gallery co-op where she teaches a weekly sculpture class. There’s already another “Elevator” in its spot.

“Kay is quite the deal. She is still the hottest artist here,” gallery spokeswoman Stephanie Salter said.

“She has quite a sense of humor. She did a series of people with a man in a bikini with a testicle hanging out. A woman from New York bought it and said, ‘I want a woman to go with it.’ So she did a woman in a bikini with her bosoms hanging out.”

Perhaps this story will merit another thumbtack.

Andrea Brown: 425-339-3443; abrown @herald Twitter: @reporterbrown.

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