Camas refines its canvas

Recession hit downtown’s art galleries hard, but groups coalesce to revitalize scene

By Mary Ann Albright, Columbian Staff Reporter

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Downtown Camas’ visual arts scene has undergone myriad changes since the recession hit, with the number of galleries dropping from three to one.

Recently, however, there’s been an infusion of new life.

Camas artist Elida Field opened a mixed-use space in downtown last summer. It’s both a place for artists to exhibit their work and an opportunity for community members to flex their creative muscles.

Experiencing the arts in Camas

Second Story Gallery typically features a different artist each month. This month’s exhibit highlights the paintings and raku pottery of Camas couple Dave and Boni Deal. April’s exhibit will feature Camas oil painter Bryn Howell. The gallery is located inside the Camas Public Library at 625 N.E. Fourth Ave.

Elida Art Studio & Gallery also rotates exhibits monthly. For March, owner Elida Field displayed work by her young art students. Next month, she’ll spotlight Vancouver acrylic painter Lori Salzer. Elida Art Studio & Gallery is at 421 N.E. Cedar St. in downtown Camas.

Field and the volunteers behind longtime Camas staple Second Story Gallery are teaming with local merchants and the Downtown Camas Association to revitalize the local arts scene and reinvigorate the monthly First Friday events.

“We’re in kind of a difficult patch at the moment,” said Donna Roberge, a Camas resident and Clark County arts commissioner. “I think when the economy turns around, we’ll see a vibrancy again in the city of Camas.”

Art is a key ingredient in the revitalization of downtown, according to Roberge.

“People rally around the art community in Camas,” she said.

If you go

What: First Friday, a monthly event where downtown Camas businesses and galleries stay open late. Themes vary, spotlighting the area’s artists, musicians, restaurants and boutiques. This month is a “golden egg hunt,” where patrons can win prizes from participating businesses.

When: 5-8 p.m. on the first Friday of each month. The next event will take place April 1.

Where: Various merchants throughout downtown Camas.

Cost: Free.

Information:http://www.downtowncamas.com.

The most constant fixture among Camas arts establishments has been Second Story Gallery, which occupies the upper level of the Camas Public Library (625 N.E. Fourth Ave., http://www.secondstorygallery.org).

The nonprofit gallery launched in the early ’80s, and is run by the Second Story Gallery Society, a volunteer group. The gallery focuses on local work but has had exhibits by artists from as far away as Japan and Poland.

Second Story does more than help artists gain exposure, though, said library director David Zavortink.

“Part of our mission as a library is to be a gathering place for the community and foster discussion among the community, and the gallery helps with that,” he said.

Second Story hosts a monthly First Friday reception. After the closure of two nearby galleries, First Friday isn’t quite the same, said Camas watercolor artist Ulrike Halverson, who is Second Story’s curator and vice president of the Second Story Gallery Society.

“I hope that we get more galleries,” she said.

‘If you build it ...’

She’s starting to get her wish with the arrival of Elida Art Studio & Gallery (421 N.E. Cedar St., http://www.elidafield.com), run by Field.

Field shares a downtown Camas storefront with the mold manufacturing company History Stones. Her gallery opened in July and celebrated its grand opening during September’s First Friday festivities.

Field also gives art classes and works on her own paintings in her studio.

She previously taught art classes at local private schools and out of her home, but she felt that the demand was there to warrant a storefront.

“I always felt, if you build it, they will come,” she said.

The risk has paid off. Field reports that class enrollment has doubled since this summer.

“The response has been overwhelming,” she said.

In the future, she’d like to start offering other artists the opportunity to buy memberships to use the studio.

Art is a luxury

Neither Second Story nor Elida Art Studio & Gallery is solely dependent upon gallery sales to stay afloat. Field’s class fees generate revenue, and Second Story is part of the library and therefore doesn’t have overhead costs such as rent, utilities and staff salaries.

Slumping art sales after the economic downturn led to the closures of former Camas mainstays Nevado Gallery Gifts and Pike Art Gallery. Galleries in Vancouver, Ridgefield and Battle Ground also closed.

“To most people, art is sort of a luxury,” said Vancouver artist Judy Witteman, owner of the former Nevado space and currently a paraeducator at Fir Grove/Vista. “If you have money to buy eggs or art, you’re going to buy the basics you need to survive.”

Discretionary income was less scarce when Witteman opened Nevado in downtown Camas in 2005.

“In Camas, the energy was so phenomenal. I liked the vitality of the downtown, and all the businesses that were cropping up,” she said. “I saw the need to expose the public to new, emerging and established artists.”

When the recession hit, gallery sales dropped off. In 2009, Witteman closed Nevado.

Even though she wasn’t able to keep the gallery alive, Witteman considers the experience to be very positive.

“I loved it,” she said.

Slumping sales

Witteman thinks downtown Camas needs a critical mass of galleries to make the city a destination for art lovers. She’d like to see more galleries crop up as the economy recovers.

“The more galleries, the better,” she said.

Liz Pike had the gallery experience, and now she’s looking at other ways to share her art with a wider audience, including possibly having sales and shows on her Fern Prairie property in the future.

Pike owned and operated Pike Art Gallery in downtown Camas from early 2006 to the end of 2008. It shared space with Pike Advertising Agency, which she also owns and which up until that point had been a home business.

When she opened the gallery, the ad agency was thriving. She rented space upstairs to Camas musician and artist Nick Manwell, a former gallery owner who runs Inicky Digital Imaging. Subletting to Manwell helped Pike cover costs, but it ultimately wasn’t enough.

After a strong showing in Pike Art Gallery’s first year, sales dipped some in 2007 and even more in 2008. Pike had hoped her ad agency would be able to subsidize the gallery, but that business suffered the effects of the economy, as well.

Pike, an artist and the director of public affairs for the Building Industry Group, thinks back fondly on the First Friday events she hosted at the gallery.

She offered live music, appetizers, handmade chocolate truffles and wine tastings, and it wasn’t unusual for 250 people to cycle through the space.

“We created a living room for Camas,” she said.

Filling the void

The absence of Pike Art Gallery and Nevado Gallery Gifts is still felt, but downtown Camas continues to offer monthly First Friday events. March’s First Friday had an Arts & Letters theme, and featured local author book signings and student artwork.

The next First Friday, which takes place on April 1 from 5 to 8 p.m., has a “golden egg hunt” focus. Patrons will collect plastic eggs at participating storefronts in hopes of finding one with a special prize.

Several downtown Camas merchants feature work by local artists in their shops, said Carrie Schulstad, owner of The Uncommon Gift (407 N.E. Fourth Ave., http://www.theuncommongift.com). Schulstad is a Downtown Camas Association board member and coordinates First Fridays.

Merchants such as Schulstad help fill the void left by Pike Art Gallery and Nevado Gallery Gifts, giving artists a space to share their work with the community. And though Camas may be short on galleries right now, there’s no lack of talent, according to the library’s Zavortink.

“I’ve always been struck when we put out a call to artists by all the incredible artists who live here,” he said.

Mary Ann Albright: maryann.albright@columbian.com, 360-735-4507.