State of the Arts

We took to the road in search of art, armed with curiosity, a camera and a recorder.

Here is what we found.

No offense to the talent in this town, but after a winter of standing in galleries, clubs and theatres with all the same folks, I needed to gain some perspective, to discover something new. So I packed up my car, flipped a coin and headed north equipped with little more than curiosity, conversational skills and my cell phone (I’m not a barbarian). For five days I circled the state to the tune of 926 miles, asking anyone I could find to point me in the direction of art.

As has been made clear to me since my return, I missed a lot. But I never intended to be a completist. I’ll leave that to Rick Steves. This journey of discovery was not married to any guidebook, but to the people I met along the way – the hula-hooping shop owner, the mysteriously hip hotel clerk, the lady selling doughnuts at the rest stop. This is their state of the arts, and now it’s mine too.

Photography by Andrew Waits for City Arts.


CRAZY TO MISS | Old Fairhaven

On the ground floor of the Sycamore Square building in historic Old Fairhaven, I find Jamie Berg inside her small-but-bursting store, Fun to Shop. I met Jamie last night at the Green Frog Acoustic Tavern in Bellingham just a few clicks to the north, where her mother and coconspirator Bria Miberi-Berg saw my notebook and started asking me questions. Jamie, it turns out, is an artistic find. In addition to being this store’s proprietor, the bubbly brunette is also a renowned hula-hoop dancer known as Ms. B who was one of the first in the world to use LED-enhanced hoops in her performance.

She sells hoops at her store, along with vintage clothing and shirts printed with designs by local artists. This is the type of store that can hang work by famed Bellingham artist Michael Costello on the wall and a threadbare Elvis Costello T-shirt in the window – and it does. I purchase a tee featuring a print by Karl Punch, and it’s handed to me in a grocery bag that has been embellished with a curious portrait painted by Jamie’s mother. Just then, the elder Berg arrives and points out the store’s “sexy wall,” which features photos of customers posing with their finds. “Do you know this guy?” she asks, pointing to a picture of a jovial bearded man holding up a striking green and yellow skirt. I do. It’s comedian Zach Galifianakis. After I pose for my own photo for the “sexy wall,” the two ladies tell me they have phoned the proprietor of Bellingham’s toaster museum and set up an appointment for me.


MOTA | Bellingham

An unremarkable back-alley walkway leads to artist Eric Brown’s studio. On the other side of that door, though, is perhaps one of the most impressive displays of appliance art in the state. It’s known as the Museum of Toaster Art.

In a room that measures about four feet by ten, shelves upon shelves of chrome toasters reach the ceiling. Brown, an artist with the intensity of a scientist and the grace of a dancer, gestures at them nonchalantly. “Most people come in here and ask why I collect all these toasters,” he says. “They don’t realize that all of these are just materials for my art.” His art: a toaster that has been turned into a globe; one that is turning on a spit inside a toaster oven; another with magnifying glasses affixed to it all around, titled “Where’s the Butter?” There’s one in a rabbit cage, surrounded by a litter of baby toasters. And there is one that looks like a suitcase. “I wanted to turn it into a real, functioning suitcase,” Brown says as he opens the toaster to reveal a cloth-lined interior, “but it turned out looking more like a purse.” As Brown shows me outside, I tell him I will call later if I need any info, but assure him that he has likely given me enough. “I hope so,” he replies, “but I don’t know what I’ve given you.”


IT TAKES FOUR … | Edison

“A lot of people write about this place,” says Andrew Vallee, co-owner of Smith and Vallee Gallery in the incredibly small village of Edison in Skagit Valley. “They’re usually just interested in the artisan food here. I had one writer from a magazine interview me for an hour once. But when the article came out, the gallery was barely mentioned and the photo was of a piece of pie.”

The food in Edison – from Slough Foods and the Edison Inn – is good, no doubt, but if all you do is eat pie when you visit, you will miss the best part of the town: four galleries, all clustered around a single streetcorner and all astoundingly unique and forward-looking. Edison is a town where the galleries outnumber the gas stations and, as far as I can tell, the smallest town in the world, with a mere 133 residents, to have a monthly art walk.

As Vallee tells it, the gallerists in Edison are carrying on a tradition of unconventional artists in the Skagit Valley. It sprang from the influence of Northwest School artists like Guy Anderson and Mark Tobey who worked for a time in La Conner, eighteen miles south of here and the home of the Northwest Museum of Art.

The Edison Eye, Edison’s first gallery, was started twenty-two years ago by a commercial-fisherman-turned-artist named Dana Rust and his wife, Toni Ann. When I stop by, I am greeted by a showing of local artwork as well as by Jake, the barking dog that precedes owner Dana into the room. As I look at the art – in particular, an ornamental wooden sign by Jessica Bonin that reads “JUST SOME BULLSHIT SMALL TOWN DRAMA” – Dana sits in a rocking chair in the corner, answering my questions and quietly rocking. The space, it turns out, is something of a den to him. He and his family live in the back. In fact, all the gallerists in Edison live behind their galleries.

The other two galleries – Lucky Dumpster and Shop Curator – are closed. I decide to go have some pie before getting back on the road.

The main strip in Edison, bookended by Edison Eye Gallery, left, and Smith and Vallee Gallery (click to view larger).



LIVING ART | Concrete

Forty miles on from Edison, I arrive in Concrete, a logging town notable for a few reasons: its odd name, the fact that it was founded by somebody named Peg-Leg Everett and for serving as the setting for the bulk of Tobias Wolff’s novel This Boy’s Life. Being a fan of that book, I have to stop, but I don’t have much time; the sun is setting and the pass, which I must drive through tonight, looks ominous.

Concrete is wet, dull and oppressive. Wolff painted the town as a prison, and it’s hard for me to see it in any other light, with its empty streets and preponderance of concrete buildings and signage. So it’s with some trepidation that I stop in at a bar called the Hub and order a beer across a beautiful mahogany bar (the longest of its kind when it was installed in 1912, a sign in the corner reads). As a Journey song plays on the jukebox, a table of locals cheers a friend in a neck brace.  I am neither welcomed nor jeered at by the dozen regulars playing video golf and pool as I wander the large, worn room looking at numerous trophies hidden in the bar’s dark pockets. A wall near the pool table is covered with photos of rough-hewn characters and a collage of newspaper stories, obituaries and personal notes, all of which say, in essence, “We will miss you.”


TRUE WEST | Winthrop

Known as the town where the Old West still lives (complete with mini-golf), Winthrop is a tourist trap on a grand scale. The owner of the Chewuch Inn tells me that, years ago, the town’s then-marshal, Chris Matson, was also its most esteemed chain-saw artist, and that his work can be found throughout downtown. I find his sculptures, colorful caricatures that point softly to a rougher yesteryear. As tourists wander around, I study the work, in particular a self-portrait that stands guard in front of the town hall. Hat low, his hand at his holster and his eyes squinting, this wooden Marshal Matson is an intimidating figure. I peek under the brim and look more closely at his bright blue eyes. I wonder how close this wooden replica is to the real man. And I wonder if this marshal with his watchful eyes has prevented as many crimes as the living, breathing one did.

Asked about local art, the kind woman at the tourist office points me to the historic home of Winthrop founder Guy Waring. He went to Harvard with Owen Wister, who wrote The Virginian, regarded by some as the first great western novel. “He wrote some of it in that house,” she says, “when he was here on his honeymoon.”



Driving through Twisp on Highway 20, I can’t miss Poppie Jo Galleria. Set back from the highway, the store is one of a number of shops in a neon-bright mini-mall of sorts. I walk into the shop and am immediately struck by Joanna Sprague, the owner of the shop, a woman whose wide smile and easy laugh make a welcome change from the highway. The galleria is not a gallery by any means. Asked to point out some of her favorite pieces of art amongst the various antiques and knickknacks in her shop, she demurs: “Well, it seems that everybody thinks art has to be new now,” she says. “If it’s old, it’s just an antique.”

I soak in the odd truth of her words. But I convince Sprague to show me around anyway. Soon she is walking throughout her store and pointing out a few paintings, some of which have hung on the wall since she opened the store five years ago. Some have lingered for good reason. But others, such as a striking acrylic study of an old forty-niner panning for gold by local artist and teacher Toni Hughes, have a beauty that is in danger of getting lost in the jungle of artifacts. I wonder if it would garner more notice across town on the white walls of the Confluence Gallery I toured earlier in the day. I ask Sprague how business is. She smiles and shrugs her shoulders.


ROAD GALLERY | Highways 20 and 155

As I move out of the more tourist-friendly foothills of the Cascades, the number of galleries and arts institutions shrinks, but the artistic inclination of Washingtonians doesn’t. The highway becomes its own gallery, filled with a bounty of unusual and strangely contextualized art pieces. In a single block in Omak, I find a mini-museum featuring three distinctive works of art – of varying degrees of “authenticity” – a fire hydrant painted as a housewife, a portrait of a tribal chief beside a Computer Nut Hut store, and a sculpture of a bearded man standing on his head, a work created by Richard Beyer, the man responsible for the popular Fremont sculpture Waiting for the Interurban. Further along, at the sixty-mile marker of highway 155, is a yard festooned with colorful toy horses, all seeming to chase after one another. Further along 155, I find an eight-foot-tall steel sculpture of Chief Joseph by artist Virgil “Smoker” Marchand. A dignified work that towers above me, the sculpture is the centerpiece of the Chief Joseph Rest Area, where it is flanked by the men’s and women’s restrooms.


BOUND FOR GLORY | Grand Coulee Dam

The Grand Coulee Dam might be a masterwork of the industrial arts, but it is dwarfed in inspirational potency by a small statue that sits on the footpath overlooking it. Marked with a plaque honoring the workers who built the dam, the statue features folk hero Woody Guthrie. Guitar in hand and mouth wide open, he’s singing, I imagine, “Roll On, Columbia,” the song he wrote on commission from the government as part of a collection of tunes in honor of the dam’s completion.

Across the street the casino is bustling, and as I get back to my car to head to Spokane, another car is waiting to take my spot. I wonder if it is a gambler.


THE STRIP | Spokane

Exhausted from a long day of art hunting, I ask the front desk clerk at my hotel where I might find a drink and some good music. She points me in the direction of Mootsy’s along Sprague Avenue downtown. I must wear my tastes on my sleeve because I am soon inside the greatest punk-inspired artsy dive bar I have been to in years. The walls are covered with posters and large format paintings that appear intent on skewering the sacred: naked bodies, Jesus Christ. The jukebox is full of both punk classics and Radiohead, and the pours are deep. I settle in and pick up a local literary zine sitting on the counter called The Paper Trial. I read a short work of fiction by Melissa Voelker as I sip my whiskey, trying to imagine its characters somewhere in this city. “She is dying again,” it begins. “They whisper behind their white-gloved hands as if hiding their mouths will keep their comments hidden and their beady eyes unacknowledged.”




DEFINING ART | Highway 195

As I move further into the agricultural heartland of Washington State, art dwindles to a trickle. For the next 160 miles of highway, the closest things to art I find are sheet-metal cutouts of deer grazing in the yards of local townsfolk, and one small town with a pottery gallery and a church turned into a performing arts center. Indeed, most of the art to be seen in public around here is the stained-glass windows in churches, of which there are many.
Stopping at the oldest rest stop in the state (seriously, there’s a sign commemorating it), I ask the woman working the coffee counter if she knows where I could find some art in the area. “I think you might find some art up at Steptoe Butte,” she says, handing me a cup of thin coffee. After a winding drive to the top of the butte, five miles off the highway, I find only two things: the fantastic view of the patchwork of fields that surround the butte on all sides, and a railing where teenagers and tourists have scratched messages for whoever might pass by: “I Love Joey,” “dick and balls” (accompanied by illustration), “ALL I WANT IS BEER. NOW.


WAIT A WHILE | Waitsburg

Weary from a too-long drive through too beautiful a countryside, I coast through Dayton, sure that I am missing something but ready to get to my hotel in Walla Walla. Next up is Waitsburg. I prepare to blow by, but I am caught by a glimpse of the downtown, its old brick buildings covered in a fresh coat of paint. The street is dead, but odd. Down at the end is a giant mural of an American flag, but painted in a stark black-and-white monochrome.

Then I turn to find a gallery called AMO Art. It’s closed, but nestled up next to it is Jimgermanbar. I walk into the bar filled with people, young and old and very metropolitan. This place, I am told, is the best Etruscan café in the area. It is owned by Jim German and the gallery next door is owned by his wife, Claire Johnston-German. The couple isn’t around, but their influence on this small town is very present. The wait for food and drink is too long, so I slide away from the oasis and back into the empty street, staring at that flag.


ON THE RECORD | Walla Walla

On Main Street in Walla Walla, where overpriced food joints compete for attention with city-commissioned sidewalk art, I discover a store that is, in itself, a work of art. It’s called Hot Poop, and, as the plaque outside the door attests, it is the state’s oldest independent record store.

Inside is an amazing mess of music, from the usual records and CDs to dozens of guitars, scores of gold records and autographed paraphernalia too numerous to count. There are also worn-out carcasses of every gizmo that has been employed to save record stores in the last twenty years, all obscured by boxes and merchandise. The store has been in operation for thirty-seven years, “not all of them at a profit,” owner Jim McGuinn admits. He is a talker who would rather answer a question at length than make the next sale. But somehow McGuinn has scraped by. “When the Kmart went in, it was really tough,” he says, “but the Internet has really helped out.” With his long hair, Grateful Dead necklace and lackadaisical demeanor, McGuinn is an unlikely beneficiary of the wired world. “We just sold a Carrot Top on Amazon,” announced his son, who works the counter. “We’ve had that for five years and no one wanted it,” McGuinn replies. “Go figure.”

Downtown Waitsburg (click to view larger).



HOME | Highway 12

I turn off my road music and flip on the radio, in search of something to occupy my mind as I wind my way west through the hills of southern Washington. I find an episode of This American Life on NPR. Host Ira Glass introduces Dan Savage, the Seattle writer made famous by his “Savage Love” column. Savage tells a story I have heard him tell before, about his Catholic upbringing and his struggle to find an identity within a faith that, while riddled with hypocrisy and hate, is still the faith of his family. He talks about St. James Cathedral in Seattle, where he went after his mother passed away. He chokes up a couple times as he tells this story. When he finishes, I find my eyes brimming with tears. I think about Savage’s story and that church, which I have sat in myself. I think about the power a place can hold. Then I turn off the radio and head toward the pass – back home again. •