The Sand Painter

Sand painting by Albert (Jun) S. Toves

February 16, 2008

I met Jun and Carmen Toves and their family in 1984 on Rota, 25 years ago. Over the years as our friendship grew, we became more like family than friends. In fact, my children call Carmen and Jun "Auntie Carmen" and "Uncle Jun", and their children call me "Aunt Wendy." If someone asked me to name my top ten favorite people in the world, Carmen and Jun would be at the top of the list. 

If I search my fondest memories, pictures of Carmen and Jun and their children are there. Lots of pictures. We celebrated birthdays and holidays together and went to island events together. If I went to a fiesta or another event without a member of the Toves family, people would ask me where they were. 

Before I taught at Rota High School, Carmen and I taught together at Rota Elementary and Junior High School.  We ate lunch together and rode to work together. Jun drove us; Carmen never drove.  After school we would often head to the beaches or to the jungle with the children. 

Jun and I are both artists.  Jun made detailed shell art, sea glass mosaics, and intricate sand paintings. I paint in acrylics and create mosaics from pottery shards and glass. When I lived on Rota I collected pottery shards along the beaches to use for my mosaics. I gathered hundreds of jade and dark green shards and thousands of blue and white pieces that washed ashore from the ship wreck.  Jun and Carmen joined me in my pursuit for shards taking me to hidden beaches and former Japanese dumping sites to collect them.

We also collected shells.  Anyone who knows me well, knows I have collected shells since I was a child.   Many of my most prized shells were given to me by Jun and Carmen - a golden cowrie, a trumpet triton, cone shells, and orange Chinese thorny oysters.  Jun collected shells to make shell art like this beautiful seahorse. He also made one-of-a-kind necklaces crafted out of rare shells. 
As we walked on long stretches of beaches with no names looking for shells and pottery shards, Jun and Carmen told me stories about the island, the history of Rota, and Chamorro folklore. They taught me the Chamorro names of native plants, and showed me which ones were used for medicine.  (I still use coleus for bruises.) They taught me how to collect sea salt at As Matmos, and  Jun also taught me some fishing techniques that I used when living in the jungle at i Batku. 

It was Jun and Carmen who taught me how to hunt coconut crabs, one of my favorite foods.   I got a hunting license and Jun prepared the coconut bait. We tied the coconut to trees in the jungle at i Batku.  We waited for the coconut bait to ferment and then went back to the jungle at night to check the traps.  Jun would grab the crabs and drop them into a rice sack.

I refined the coconut crab hunting method to a version that Jun found hilarious.  After dinner the kids and I would put out leftover food for a monitor lizard named Dragon, and a stray feral cat who lived near our house. I noticed if there was tuna, some coconut crabs would join the feast. So I abandoned the traditional process of preparing coconut bait and put out canned tuna for bait.  No wait involved.  Just put out canned tuna and when it was dark, pick up the crabs.  I also thought that grabbing the crabs from behind and throwing them in rice sacks was too risky, especially since I was warned that the crabs could snap off a finger with their dangerous claws. So I caught the crabs using my own method. I took old fishing nets I gathered from the beach and threw them on top of crabs.  They would get tangled in the nets and I could grab up the net without touching the crab (or losing a finger). Jun thought it was hysterical that I caught so many coconut crabs with tuna fish bait and old fishing nets.  I can still hear him laughing whenever I remember our hunting days.

We shared many special times together. We chaperoned off-island trips taking Rota school children to performing and visual art festivals in Saipan and Guam.  In 1992, Jun and I were among those selected to represent Rota as visual artists in the Sixth Festival of Pacific Arts in the Cook Islands. Boboy was one of the selected performing artists.  Jun, Carmen, Boboy, six-week-old Nani, and I went to Sydney, Australia and then on to two weeks in the Cook Islands with other CNMI artists for an experience we will always cherish.  

Once Jun crafted a sling from hibiscus fiber and pandanas.  He made it for my son, Nathan who asked him how ancient Chamorros used sling stones as weapons.  Without my knowledge, the children took the sling in the backyard and hurled much of my collection of sling stones into the jungle.  I still have the sling.
Last summer when Nani and I returned to the CNMI we set aside days to spend on Rota.  We had a wonderful time with Carmen and Jun.  Jun drove us to see all of my favorite sites - the Peace Memorial, Swimming Hole, the Sabana, Alaguon Bay, the Bird Sanctuary, Tonga Cave, Tewksberry, and the latte sites.  We spent time at the summer art camp where Jun taught children how to create sand painting.  We gathered shells on the beaches with no footprints, and shared some meals at As Paris where we used to meet on weekends and listen to Boboy perform. 

Last week we learned that Jun was to have surgery on Guam to remove a lesion from his lung. I talked to Carmen on the phone and she, the family and Jun were hopeful and optimistic. My heart sank when we heard from Barrie that there were complications during the surgery, and the procedure was stopped as Jun's blood pressure dropped to dangerously low levels and his oxygen levels plummeted. Sadly, Jun didn't survive the operation.  

A family has lost a great husband, father, grandfather, brother, and uncle. Many of us have lost a dear friend. The CNMI has lost a great and talented artist.  I will remember Jun always as a pure-hearted, gentle and kind family man.  A loyal friend, generous and wise; quiet and humble. I am honored and grateful to have known Jun, for all of the kindness he showed to me and my family, and for all of the wisdom that he shared with us.  Our hearts and love are with Carmen and the family. May your own happy memories bring you comfort and peace.

Photos by Wendy L. Doromal


Saipan Writer said...

Lovely tribute.

I enjoyed seeing his sand paintings at the annual Flame Tree Arts Festival.

I regret not buying one now, but each year it would year the sand painting...

Anonymous said...

Touching post. Thanks.
You could never do those activities now days. Dept Fish and Wild life would nail you for illegal shell collection. DFW actually have emailled some divers warning them about shell collecting.
Historic Preservation Office would hassle you about the Ming Dynasty pottery....
Yes, things have changed out here.

Anonymous said...


Our deepest and most sincere condolences to you and your family for the loss of Jun. He was a talented man.

Ron Hodges