This weekend’s Clark County Open Studios Tour marks 10 years for the event, an annual pilgrimage through artists’ work spaces that draws thousands of visitors.
The tour is capped at 50 artists every year, so it hasn’t grown in scope, but it has grown in influence. Organizers say the event has enlivened Clark County’s arts community, which is now more connected, more diverse and more visible to the public than they could have imagined a decade ago. Since then, the tour has shown the work of 189 artists.
“We have so many amazing artists, but Open Studios uncovers them and brings them together,” said Jennifer Williams, who has directed the tour since it began.
This year, the tour introduced the Christine Rice Memorial Scholarship, named after an artist featured in three Open Studios tours who died in September 2022 at age 31. The scholarship awards $1,000 to emerging artists and pairs them with artist-mentors.
The scholarship’s first recipient is Annika Larman. Her artist-mentor is Pamela Sue Johnson, 59, who has been part of the Open Studios Tour for four years.
Larman, 21, is a graduate of Cam Academy in Battle Ground and received a bachelor’s degree from Washington State University Vancouver. She’ll show her art in Johnson’s Lincoln neighborhood studio alongside Johnson’s mixed-media works.
“I’ve been able to meet all kinds of people — all ages, all mediums, full-time artists and part-time creators — all over Clark County,” Larman said. “I’ve done quite a few studio visits, talking to artists about how they became creatives and what advice they have for younger artists. On top of that, just consuming so much impressive art has been so rewarding.”
None of this surprises Johnson. It’s exactly the kind of supportive community she discovered when she was first accepted into the tour in 2019. She found a wellspring of encouragement from other Open Studios artists, as well as artists not on the tour who visited her studio. She said 200 people came through her studio that first year, exactly the boost she needed as a self-taught artist. (“I went to art school at my kitchen table and graduated top of my class,” she quipped.)
Johnson is sharing her 504-square-foot studio (which is also her living space) with Larman as her artist-mentor. Even though it’s a tight squeeze, Johnson said it hasn’t been a sacrifice. She sees it as making an investment in the next generation of Clark County artists.
Johnson calls herself a “mixed-media expressionist,” layering paint, paper ephemera and photos, as well as written words and sketches, into her finished works. Her process has less to do with exacting techniques and predetermined results than it does with expressing what she’s currently thinking and feeling. Words come to her as she works and she simply adds them into the artistic mix.
“I make my art from a place of intuition rather than skill and precision. Skill is important but intuition leads my art,” Johnson said. “I do my best to be unfiltered and authentic. The more vulnerable I am, the more universal the art.”
In addition to Open Studios, Johnson can be found at Portland’s Saturday Market, Mountain View High School’s holiday bazaar on Nov. 11 and the Portland Holiday Market, Nov. 17-19 at the Portland Expo Center. She’ll soon offer livestreamed online classes at pamelasuejohnson.com. Given that she left a factory job at 55 years old to become a full-time artist, Johnson feels compelled to inspire others to take similar leaps of faith.
“I told Annika, ‘Welcome to the magical creature club,’” Johnson said. “When you’re an artist, you live a life of magic.”
Larman, an abstract mixed-media artist, said Johnson’s mentorship has been invaluable. Their relationship is especially meaningful, Larman said, because the two artists first met during an Open Studios tour a couple years ago.
Larman credits Johnson with being one of the three people (including Williams and her mother) who were instrumental in encouraging her to pursue a career in the arts. Open Studios has been the perfect springboard for Larman, who plans to set off in January for a six-month arts residency at one of Denmark’s folk schools. She plans to use the time to hone her skills and expand her portfolio.
“I feel so lucky,” Larman said. “I’ve been to Open Studios multiple times and I loved meeting the artists. Now I get to be on the other side of that.”