The Heron Speaks: 1960 – 1998 History of Arts on Vashon by Mary Shackelford

Another entry from the VAA historical archive, this one a lovely history written by Mary G. L. Shackelford in 1998 for the Vashon Island Community Arts Forum.


What follows is a brief history of the arts on Vashon since 1960.  I hope this will give us all some common ground in knowing a little about the diversity and complexity of what is offered on Vashon in the arts and an overview of the shape of the arts scene here, how it has grown and changed

It should be noted that histories of this type invariably focus on the official organizations and groups when it is people who are the underpinnings of all the activities. It seems indisputable to me that the most important elements that make up our community arts scene are the individual practicing artists, both amateur and professional, and the consumers of the arts opportunities, both the participants and the spectators. On Vashon, this has kept our arts community diverse, individual, eccentric, non-conforming, and difficult to survey. That consensus is hard to come by is no surprise. In even so cursory a history as this, one only gets a glimmer of all that happens off-stage, so to speak. Please don’t forget the importance of individuals — artists, patrons, and consumers of all ages — as we look towards our future. We must find ways to hear the different voices.

Also an important caveat: this is an informal, hurried work-in-progress. There is obviously a lot included here about VAA. This is mostly because VAA has been the organization with the oldest, largest, and most diverse arts programming and services on the Island. VAA also owns and manages the community’s multi-arts center. But inevitably it is also because that is the information which is most readily available. Please feel free to add events you may know about, make changes if you see errors, and elaborate where it seems called for. And forgive me in advance for any oversights.

Respectfully submitted,

Mary G. L. Shackelford


1960’s

Operation Jigsaw

In 1964, a community survey by University of Washington called Operation Jigsaw catalogued arts services available on Vashon and made several recommendations. While there appears to have been a long history of involvement in the arts here, starting in the 1880’s with the Chautauqua at Ellisport and throughout the early 1900’s, attracting a number of individual artists into the community, in 1964 there was no choral, theatrical, or literary group functioning. The forerunner of VAA operated a small summer program called Creative Activities Center at the Lisabeula School in 1963-64. There was a fair amount of arts activity in the public schools with a band, chorus, dance band, and two smaller singing groups, the VHS Thespian Club was active and, in 1962, a part-time art teacher was employed. The Community Players, a drama club, operated from 1950-1961 but lack of space for productions became a problem. The Vashon Island Arts League was active 1949-1962. Over the years, various literary groups formed, including a Great Books group and several book review clubs.

The Jigsaw report noted the proximity to quality arts opportunities in the nearby urban areas and recommended not duplicating what the cities offer but directing local effort toward developing active participation. The report also identified a suitable building for arts activities and productions as a major need

Vashon Allied Arts

Partly in response to Operation Jigsaw and partly to become eligible for PONCHO funding, Vashon Allied Arts was incorporated as a non-profit organization in 1966. Besides operating out of the Lisabeula School, the group also used the Cove Church and the Scout Cabin at Ober Park as centers for arts activities. Most of VAA’s early activities appear to have been educational and support for literary and visual arts, dance, as well as crafts

1970’s

Vashon High School Theater

In the 1970’s, Vashon High School was renovated and the current VHS Theater was created for multi-purpose uses and called the lecture hall. It had desks and later very basic theater capability was added. However, with the retirement of the drama teacher there, and with funding problems, the arts in the public schools languished.

Drama Dock

Drama Dock was founded as a non-profit organization in 1975 by Tish Lopez and Laurel Watt. Its first production was Plaza Suite. On an informal basis, Drama Dock was able to use the VHS Theater for productions. From the beginning, the community theater group averaged three productions a year with some high and lows due to member interest. The group originally used all volunteers but in the 1980’s began paying directors. The group relies on ticket sales and memberships for revenue.

Vashon Allied Arts

The late 70’s were big years for VAA. Depending on fees and some grant income, in 1976, the group initiated the first Art Auction to begin fundraising on its own. In 1977, Island arts got a big boost due to a $50,000 CETA grant administered through VAA. An Arts Resource Center was opened at the Nike Site office. A literary collection was published, murals and public art commissioned, a film and lecture series, visual art shows, and performances and coffeehouses were initiated. This expanded VAA focus to all arts media.

These CETA funds were successful in jumpstarting an on-going arts scene here. In 1979, realizing the critical importance of a physical center from which to operate, members of VAA personally rented an old church on Bank Road to establish Blue Heron Center for the Arts. Here, VAA’s broad involvement in all arts disciplines flourished and developed into an on-going program of visual, performance, and literary arts. With King County Arts Commission funding assistance, VAA hired its first part-time director. The visual arts coordinator was the first volunteer staff position.

Individual Artists

On an informal basis, the arts flourished through individual artists, craftspeople, writers, musicians, and performers. There began to be many professional artists living in the community, sometimes active locally, sometimes not. And there was an extensive network of amateur and semi-professional artists who worked to support their art habit. Vashon began to be known as a haven for artists.

John Candy began the summertime tradition of folk dancing potlucks, an activity which continued for many years, eventually metamorphosing in the current folk dancing classes offered by Martin Koenig.

Don and Pinkie Clemente operated Al & Tony’s pizzeria which became the focus of a popular open-mike event lasting into the 80’s.

In 1973, Sharon Munger started Barnworks with friends and began a loosely knit guild of craftspeople, especially fabric artists. They initiated a Christmas bazaar tradition at her Cove Road barn which continued for several years before the women ran out of steam.

In 1979, Patricia Cummings and Janice Mailman started the Vashon Island Potters Tour with several others. By 1980, Sunset Magazine had the story and Pat’s phone was innundated with calls. This became a major factor in attracting the tourist industry to Vashon, in spreading Vashon’s arts reputation, and was important in launching Irene Otis’ ceramics tile business, now at least a national distributor and a notable local arts employer. The Potters Tour has changed faces and studios but remains an important Island arts tradition, expanding some years ago to a twice yearly event

1980’s

The 1980’s were a decade of booming arts activity on Vashon.

As the activity increased, VAA especially was able to gamer significant public funding to support programs and renovation. Money from King County Arts Commission, King County Historic Preservation, King County Hotel/Motel Fund, HUD Community Development, Washington State Arts Commission, Washington Commission for the Humanities, and Western States Arts Touring Fund expanded VAA’s ability to provide programs and services in the community, often in collaboration with other groups.

It should be noted, however, the influx of public funding and the expanding success of programs created a public misconception that has plagued VAA, especially in the 90’s. Since 1980 there have only been one or two years when VAA actually closed the year in the red, but keeping the organization afloat has always been precarious. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, there have been periods of very low cash flow.

In 1981, VAA moved Blue Heron Center for the Arts to Center into the historic Odd Fellows Hall. In 1985, VAA bought the building, worked to achieve designation as Vashon’s first King County Historic Landmark, and then began on-going facility renovation and maintenance work. Tom Bardeen and Cindy Metier were instrumental in acquiring funds to begin renovation.

Upon moving to the present facility, VAA staff expanded to include a promotions director and craft shop manager. Initially, Drama Dock took over the performing arts program but after one year bowed out. By 1987, VAA’s paid staff included a visual arts coordinator and a performing arts coordinator.

Drama Dock continued to be intermittently involved, launching several productions at Blue Heron and co-sponsoring a number of others with VAA. This association resulted in some improvements to the theater space, including the (in)famous theater-in-the-round created for Rosencrantz and Guildenstem Are Dead. The puzzle of the platforms left from that production and used for staging risers for the next decade at Blue Heron haunted many minds and muscles.

John Wilkins arrived in 1982 and opened Vashon Ballet at Blue Heron. VAA renovated the upstairs to create a dance studio.

In 1985, VAA re-started a literary arts program which is on-going. Laurie Geissinger initiated creation of the first community quilt as a fundraiser for VAA. This annual effort is also on-going.

Jazz improvisation began meeting informally at Blue Heron.

The Studio Tour and First Friday gallery openings were begun.

VAA initiated a scholarship fund to help support class fees and Art Hansen held an art show to benefit the scholarship program.

VAA Board solidified its structure to take on an even more important role in fundraising, policy, building management, and staff support. The Board’s committee system began to function well. The role and importance of volunteers in VAA was vastly expanded and began to be more organized although it wasn’t until 1991 that a membership and volunteer coordinator was added to the staff.

In 1984-85 Vashon artists became the recipients of KCAC 1% for Art funds administered through VAA as local arts agency. Among the projects, Maya Radowczy completed doors for the library and Irene Otis executed tiles in the library as well as at Dockton Park.

In 1986, Pamela McMahan started the bi-monthly publication of Arts News for VAA.

That year, Liz Watters started Young Actors Workshop at Blue Heron, a drama program for elementary aged children that became one of VAA’s most popular programs.

Summer of 1986 was the first time VAA offered summer art camps, another on-going program. And Summer Salad offered simple fare, a showcase performance, and an in-formal open-mike at Blue Heron.

VAA held a 20th birthday party to purchase chairs for the 100-seat theater at blue Heron. In 1987, a 21st birthday gift landed VAA’s Kawai grand piano for the Heron as community supporters contributed $100 per key. Subsequently the Panache performance series was begun. In 1988, a computer entered the door as the community’s birthday present to VAA.

In the late 80’s KCAC changed its method of dispersing funds for the Touring Arts Program and asked VAA, as the local arts agency, to administer that program for Vashon.

VAA earned the 1987 King County Arts Commission’s Community Service Award for contributing to the cultural life of the region.

Also in 1987, Vashon Artists in the Schools (VAIS) was initiated and an arts advisory committee worked to expand arts curriculum in the schools. An ethnic arts in the schools program was funded by King County Arts Commission. Arts specialists were added to the faculty at the public schools.

In 1988, John Wilkins turned his dance program over to VAA which then hired its own director, Jennifer Carroll. This program continued to flourish and grew into one of VAA’s largest and most successful arts education offerings.

In 1988, Youth Theater Project was created to serve teenagers, especially at-risk, through a collaboration between Youth and Family Services and VAA. This was ultimately spearheaded by Liz Watters who continues to run the program under her own auspices.

In 1989, the tradition of a biennial student art show was begun to showcase VHS students’ work in the gallery at Blue Heron.

In 1989, another phase of renovation brought the craft shop out of the back room at Blue Heron up into the front Craft Gallery and Brenda Moore became active in developing volunteer support to manage the shop.

In addition to the thriving and expanding activities of VAA and Drama Dock, Liz Watters started Another Theater Production early in the 80’s which independently produced Jacques Brel and Jesus Christ Superstar. Thespians who wanted even more started Vashon Summer Theater in 1981 and gave a number of productions, mostly musicals, before fading.

Vashon Women’s Choir operated from 1982-85, running out of steam without a paid director, but re-emerging into Island Singers in 1987 which is still going strong under the leadership of Pat Hudson. Community members also initiated a holiday tradition of Messiah which lasted several years.

Vashon-Maury Chamber Orchestra was organized in 1984 under the leadership of Jack Peters and gave its first concert at Blue Heron. At various times, Paul Haas, Jerry McGhee, and Julie Blakemore led the group before Dell Wade became director in 1992. The group includes between 20-30 players and offers two to three concerts each year.

Susan Hanson arrived at VHS in 1988 and reinvigorated the drama program there.

The Barnworks tradition was revived in in the mid-80’s by Sharon Munger and a group of watercolor artists who have expanded to add an outdoor spring show that includes sculpture.

Laughing Dog Press was active in the 80’s, printing and publishing small collections of handmade books and broadsheets.

In 1988, Vashon Youth String Orchestra formed a non-profit group under the direction of Gaye Detzer and made its debut at a Blue Heron Christmas show. VYSO has performed the works of great classical composers and collaborated with other Vashon youth artists including pianists, flutists, and dancers. They have also done joint concerts with Vashon-Maury Chamber Orchestra. VYSO set the stage for several firsts for young Island musicians: string players qualified for WA. Music Educators All-state Orchestra, two teenaged boys selected as gold medalists to perform with Seattle Symphony, and several high school quartets. Although the youth orchestra ceased in 1996, many young string players are now in the V-M Chamber Orchestra.

Throughout the years, many of the churches on Vashon have been active supporters and participants in the arts. Besides ecumenical music, organ concerts, and other choral opportunities, the churches have a long history of providing rehearsal and performance space. The Methodist Church is the home of an unusual handbell choir and the Presbyterian Church has been a mainstay in providing space for Vashon-Maury Chamber Orchestra,,

Although it was not until the 90’s that Vashon Park District became involved in the Island’s art scene, VPD was created in 1983. After passing its first major levy in 1987, VPD hired director Wendy Braicks in 1989. VPD was instrumental in negotiating the interlocal agreement with Vashon School District to allow better community use of school facilities during out-of-school hours. This has had a huge impact on space availability for classes and workshops and most especially in the administration of the VHS Theater for community use.

1990’s

The 90’s has proven to be a decade of change for the arts on Vashon. As a result of the enormous success of the 80’s, the 90’s saw a significant expansion of the arts into the private sector. Galleries opened, independent artists started commercial studios, loosely organized affiliations solidified and expanded the Christmas tour started by the potters and many also joined into the spring tour. Dance exploded with at least four different groups offering classes by the end of the 90’s. Groups and individuals began vying for performance space and times.

UMO arrived and created the Islewilde summer performance arts festival. George Wright started the Brazen Women Foundry and created a sculpture garden next to Vashon Landing. A group of visual artists started In-Cahoots, Northwest Painters formed, and another group of women founded Quartermaster Press. Stars and Stripes Dance Company came to Vashon under the direction of Betsy Frazee. Joan Hanna renovated her barn and began offering a variety of independent programs there, especially involving movement and contact improvisation. Karen Nelson brought international involvement when she started the annual diverse dance conference now held at Camp Sealth. An effort was made to provide artist studio space in the old Beall Greenhouses. Silverwood Gallery, Green Door Galley, Sun and Spirit, Threadworks, Wildlife Designs, and Brian Brenno’s glassworks opened. Kathleen’s Dance Studio began offering dance instruction. Catherine Michaelis began publishing and creating handmade paper art as May Day Press in the 90’s.

After something of a low energy period in the early 90’s, Drama Dock came on strong as the 90’s progressed. By 1995, the group was back to solid membership status and regularly presenting three productions each year. Continuing largely as an amateur group, Drama Dock did begin paying directors and hiring some technical assistance. The group continues to rely on ticket revenues and membership support for income.

Vashon Park District began to have greater impact on the arts scene in the 90’s when it entered the funding arena, providing limited funds to individuals and groups on a project- by-project basis, and beginning to offer arts programs and sponsor arts events under its own auspices. Vashon Library also expanded programs, many of which involved the arts, using funds from the KC Library, KC Arts Commission, and Friends of the Library. Both of these groups were able to offer participation either for free or at a low fee structure due to public subsidy.

Meanwhile, in the late 90’s, the funding picture for the non-profit groups shifted, with public funds becoming less available and virtually shrinking out of existence by the end of the decade. VAA’s annual revenues grew from $58,574 in 1987 to $183,676 in 1990 to about $350,000 in 1995 and then leveled off. VAA made an effort to realign towards corporate funding achieving some success with Seattle Foundation, Seafirst Bank, Washington Mutual arid a number of local corporate donors pitching in. But locally, more groups, both in and out of the arts sector, began competing for Island dollars through membership and fundraising campaigns sometimes involving non-arts groups sponsoring performances or other arts events to raise money. And naturally, with all the opportunities available, competition for space and earned revenue increased as well.

In 1990, VAA reinvigorated its spring membership drive with resounding success and adding a membership and volunteer coordinator to the staff the following year. The Garden Tour was started in 1990. VAIS got off the drawing board and expanded its artist residency offerings in the schools. UMO Ensemble arrived in 1990 and made Vashon their homebase. The Vashon Circus was started by Joan Hanna and friends and became a much-loved annual event for many years. It was reported in Arts News that VAA’s 1990 total revenue was $183,676 and of that about $124,000 was paid to artists and teachers.

In 1991, commissioned artists were featured at Art Auction and the Jakk Corsaw memorial scholarship fund was established through VAA for an annual award to a VHS graduating senior.

Besides continuing to push membership, in 1992 VAA started Silver Circle, an effort to establish an endowment fund, and expanded Art Auction to two nights. Candy Gamble received a 1992 Kennedy Center Award for contribution and support in arts education. UMO started Islewilde that summer. After a levy which included increased dollars for arts funding.

VAA executive director Robin Early made an unsuccessful proposal to Vashon Parks District for major assistance.

Due to massive volunteer burnout and what was then seen as relatively small fundraising potential, in 1992 VAA backed out of its long commitment to Strawberry Festival. The organization had for many years organized events at Ober Park including the booths and the performance festival. After 1992, Vashon Chamber of Commerce took over.

Begun as a pilot program with public funding from the county, VAIS had to make a shift in resources if the artists residency program was going to continue to serve Vashon public schools. In 1992-93, Partners in Education, a funding support group for the schools started in 1987, agreed to assist VAA and the School District by providing annual support for VAIS. The program also receives some private corporate support. In 1995, Amy Hudgins started Causewalk as a fundraising mechanism to bolster VAIS resources.

In 1993, VAA., Drama Dock, and others joined together to assist the School District with renovation of VHS Theater. The old desks were replaced with 282 theater seats and the staging was ripped out with a sprung floor installed for dance and to meet firecode.

Ross Palmer Beecher installed a controversial sculpture at the landfill under the 1% for Art program that year. Valerie Willson won a competition to design the Emma Award for Vashon-Maury Land Trust. In a special environmental arts collaboration between community service groups and artists, funded by KC Hotel/Motel through VAA, Elaine Hanowell, Francie Allen, Hans Nelsen, Bonnie Wilkins, and Bruce Morser completed art projects for Community Council forestry and town planning committees, Audubon recycling and conservation committees, and V-M Land Trust.

Vashon Park District asked VAA to form an arts advisory committee with broad community representation in 1993 to help commissioners with arts issues and to oversee dissemination of funds to arts groups.

In 1993-94, VAA won National Endowment for the Arts funding for three community residencies and brought The Persuasions to Vashon. Also in that series were Morca Flamenco and Radost residencies. VAA’s literary arts program was funded by the Lila Wallace Fund to present written pieces on the theme of work and later published the Island Rhythms collection. In 1994, VAA’s staff had expanded to 10. The New Works performance series was started that year to encourage and showcase Island performers. Jennifer Carroll left the Blue Heron dance program in June and Cheryl Krown became director.

VPD, at the recommendation of the arts advisory committee, commissioned a study of arts facilities on Vashon in 1994. The Collins Report surveyed existing spaces and did a cursory analysis of the Island’s resources. It concluded that the financial capability of the Island to build and maintain a new arts center was dubious and recommended that arts groups here work together to improve the existing VHS Theater by renovating that facility and exploring the option of adding a black box rehearsal hall with theater shop capabilities nearby. VPD formally adopted these recommendations but consensus in the arts community has never been assured.

In 1994, King County Historic Preservation asked VAA to be the lead local agency in administering restoration of the Mukai Gardens.

Under Brenda Moore’s leadership, in 1995 VAA moved its craft shop into the town of Vashon and renamed it Heron’s Nest. Volunteers completely took over management. That year, Liz Watters ended her long direct association with VAA and moved YTP to the Teen Center under the auspices of Vashon Park District. VAA continued the youth drama program as Blue Heron Drama. In September, VAA executive director Will Furth negotiated to lease the property north of Blue Heron Art Center and a parking lot was created.

In 1995, the lack of communication and consensus on the Island became evident in a slight brouhaha over facilities funding. Based on the Collins Report, VAA initiated efforts to obtain KCAC and NEA funding for VHS Theater renovation. Architect Keith Putnam contributed schematics for renovation of the main theater and addition of a black box and theater shop. However, Vashon Park District simultaneously submitted a grant to KCAC on behalf of Vashon Teen Center to create a small theater space at Ober Park. KCAC pointed out the discrepancy of one community seeking funding from the same pot for two different but essentially similar proposals.

1996 saw further change. With the blooming of independent galleries and arts businesses, First Friday was changed to Gallery Cruise and the visual arts are celebrated now all over the Island on first Fridays. In May, Arts News increased to monthly publication, having already made the switch from a VAA membership benefit to free Island-wide distribution. Then in June, Arts News metamorphosed into Island View as Vashon Parks District and VAA began joint publication of the monthly community events newsletter.

Over the summer, Cheryl Krown left VAA’s dance program and renovated commercial space uptown into a large dance studio to open Vashon Dance Academy with support from Dance! Vashon, a non-profit organization providing dance instruction and performance opportunities in the community. After much fulmination, VAA Board decided a dance program should continue at Blue Heron in spite of a significant cutback in attendance. Since then. Blue Heron Dance has begun a steady comeback under the direction of Christine Juarez.

VAA celebrated its 30th anniversary and published a year-long oral history project.

In 1996-97, with the encouragement of KC Historic Preservation, VAA and Vashon Maury Heritage Association joined forces to initiate purchase of the property to the south of Blue Heron and begin fundraising for a building expansion which would include museum storage and display space for the Island heritage group.

In 1998, Brenda Moore again organized a move for Heron’s Nest, this time to a main street front location with expanded space and display capacity.

In May 1998, VAA director Jason Everett called an all-island arts forum to explore issues of communication, performing arts facilities needs, and VAA’s role as Vashon’s local arts agency

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