From Cannon Beach to the Long Beach Peninsula, the art scene on our coast is thriving like never before
Story by DWIGHT CASWELL
The past decade has seen such an influx of artists, galleries and lovers of art that various city and county governments are beginning to see art as a significant economic driver. The beauty and history of the area inspires artists, and the Columbia-Pacific region is on its way to becoming the next art mecca. Of the hundreds of artists and craftspeople who now live, work and exhibit here, we’ve chosen four to suggest the breadth of talent and vision that has ignited this transformation.
Portland art critic Richard Speer calls Darren Orange’s work, “far from pretty, yet somehow perversely brilliant.”
The artist’s studio is a stone’s throw from the Columbia River. The fact that it is in a room on the second floor of what used to be an office building in downtown Astoria serves as a metaphor for the increasing significance of art in this coastal town. What goes on in that ex-office, however, is nothing that any previous tenant would recognize as business.
Beneath the white ceiling with its track lighting, barely organized chaos reigns. A stool, two heaters and the floor are covered with drips and splashes of paint. Paint is present in cans, tubes and spray cans, but the only brush in sight is a house painting brush, and it appears to have never been used. Paintings with strong, dark lines and bold colors, heavily worked and textured, line the walls; three paintings sit on an easel that fills one end of the room.
In front of the easel, Darren Orange works on a painting, spreading color with his gloved hands and a scrap of cardboard.
Orange was an early émigré to Astoria, arriving 13 years ago, shortly after receiving a degree in fine arts from Western Washington University. “I moved here for the location,” he says. “Working class, working city. I liked its architecture and history. I stayed because of the people and what they have built here, enterprises that build community.”
He also moved to Astoria because he found employment to pay the bills while becoming established as an artist, and because, at the time, studio space was relatively inexpensive and easy to find. As the art scene grows, though, that is changing.
“Where I’m at completely informs me,” says Orange. “The area permeates my psyche. My paintings are straddling representation and abstraction, back and forth, but where I’m at always comes out in my work.”
Orange believes in self-promotion and isn’t represented by a gallery. You can easily see his work, though, while having a beer at the Fort George Brewery in Astoria. His paintings hang on the walls, and the chalkboard beer lists are more transient examples of his art.
Since 1985, Wiegardt’s studio, in Ocean Park, Washington, has been something of a Mecca in itself. Wiegardt is one of America’s finest watercolorists, which he demonstrated in 2012 when the American Watercolor Society awarded him the Gold Medal of Honor at its annual international exhibition.
As Wiegardt says, “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Wiegardt is not one of those artists who moved to the area. He was born and raised here, and after graduating from Chicago’s American Academy of Art, he returned home to establish his gallery and studio in the house his great-grandfather built in 1897. “It was a fun place to grow up as a kid, playing on the dunes, being outdoors, and I wanted the same small community experience for my kids,” he says.
Wiegardt speaks of “early morning visions” when he worked in oystering as a young man. “I am visually impressed by the area. I like to do landscapes and marinescapes. I like the abstract designs of water. Living and working here gets under your skin. It’s deep down inside, and I have a drive to put that down on paper.”
That drive, and the quality of his work, has not gone unappreciated. He has taught his “Secrets of Painting Loose” workshops internationally to more than 5,000 students (“I show them how to have fun again with their painting.”), and more than 4,000 of his original paintings have been collected privately and corporately.
The most important thing for Eric Wiegardt, though, is simpler: “It’s been a good way to raise a family.”
Susan Bish intended to become an artist, studying art in college, but took a long hiatus from art to raise a family. During that hiatus, the family spent many vacations on the Oregon Coast, and in the mid-1970s they moved to Gearhart. There, the magic of the ocean, the landscape and the dramatic weather worked its magic, as it does for many. Bish returned to actively painting when a friend suggested she join the Cannon Beach Palette Puddlers, a women’s painting group. Another friend introduced Bish to Gearhart’s Trail’s End Art Association, “a wonderful facility, a little gem,” and she began taking classes to revive her skills.
“Where we live is very beautiful,” Bish says. “It’s in my soul. The most fun is plein air painting, a different location every time, different weather conditions and light. It’s always changing.”
Bish works in many mediums – watercolor, oils, acrylics, collage – and her work is mostly realistic. “I try to capture the whole scene,” she says. She is, though, “trying to be looser, more free and abstract,” an influence, no doubt, from Eric Wiegardt, whose classes she has taken.
She has, however, resisted the suggestions of friends to become a professional. She exhibits in galleries and now teaches classes herself, but does not want to make a business out of art. “I do it,” says Susan Bish, “for the sheer joy of it.”
Bonny Gorsuch, an artist of found objects and “previously loved” fabrics, grew up in California’s Manhattan Beach. “I’ve always had the beach in my blood,” she says. So when she moved to Oregon, where she met her husband, painter Richard Gorsuch, it was natural that they move to Cannon Beach.
“I love living here,” she says, “It makes me happy, so my work is happy. And it affects my color choice.” The proof is in her art, which is above all colorful and cheerful.
“When you live somewhere you love, it affects your whole psyche,” Gorsuch continues. “There is a price to pay – not having big box stores, hospitals and airports – but it turns out that I don’t want all the stuff.”
Gorsuch says, “I’ve always been creative, since I was a child, but I was raised in a home where it wasn’t noticed.” Her husband saw her talent, though, and she began to take it seriously in the mid-1980s. By the late 1990s she was selling her work on Ebay; after selling more than 4,000 items, she moved to Etsy.
Gorsuch began with three-dimensional assemblages of found objects (her first pieces were made with cedar shingles torn from the couple’s house when they replaced the roof). Later a friend requested a fabric collage for her wedding invitation, and Gorsuch became fascinated with fabric. Most of her art today is wearable.
“Now I’m trying to get a look and a line,” she says, “but it’s difficult. Every one is one-of-a-kind.”
Dwight Caswell is a writer and photographer who lives in Astoria. You can learn more about him and see his work at www.DwightCaswell.com