Columbia City Gallery Celebrates 20 Years

by Katie Pyontek

Columbia City Gallery smells, unsurprisingly, like oil paint. There’s a slight breeze in the gallery, and it’s quiet except for the air conditioner’s hum. An artist, one of the gallery’s current members, is working a shift in the gift shop and says hello. There’s an ease to being in the space.

“As soon as you walk in, you can feel it,” Eliaichi Kimaro, a member of the gallery for three years, said. “It has a feeling that’s very welcoming. There’s no shaming if you don’t know what you’re looking at — you can ask people questions.”

Columbia City Gallery is celebrating its 20th Anniversary with a Members’ Retrospective exhibit until June 23. Over 100 current and former members spanning the gallery’s 20-year history contributed a piece to the exhibit.

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Photo by Katie Pyontek

The gallery started in 1999 after Darigold hired SEEDArts, the arts and cultural branch of   the Southeast Effective Development nonprofit, to paint a mural. SEEDArts hired Carlos Callejo to design the large-scale mural on the west wall of Darigold’s Rainier facility, and brought in local artists Joan Robbins and Deborah Bigelow-Johnson to grid and paint the design.

“I remember we climbed up on the roof of the building and gridded that wall, dropping a line down and putting chalk on there,” Joan Robbins, one of the founding members, recalls. “You start drawing it on and somebody’s finger is this big and you think, that can’t be right! But it was!”

The huge mural took all summer and the community’s help to complete.

“We kept having to go down to Columbia City and pick up the guy who designed it,” Robbins said. “We decided it looked like such a cute little neighborhood that it needed a gallery.”

“As you can imagine it would be nearly impossible for 20 artists to collectively sign a lease and handle fiscal obligations,” Kathy Fowells, who acted as manager of the Columbia City Gallery from 2005 until becoming the director of SEEDArts in 2015, said. Instead, SEEDArts leased the building in the space that’s now the Columbia City Theater. But 2 years later, the building went up for sale. In 2002, SEEDArts launched a capital campaign and raised about $500,000 to purchase the building that the gallery still occupies.

“Our goal in purchasing that building was to ensure the gallery had a home forever, that it wouldn’t get pushed out by rent increases or development,” she said.

But the building was in bad shape when they bought it, and remodeling took almost a year — much longer than expected. After losing its first lease, the gallery temporarily closed.

The gallery re-opened in its current location in 2003.

“Columbia city was really, really different than it is now,” Fowells said. “It’s really changed and gentrified,” Robbins said.

Amid that gentrification, the gallery remains a consistent space serving the community.

“As the community gentrifies, we’re a place that tries to hold the culture that has been here,” Betsy Fetherston, who has managed Columbia City Gallery since 2015 said. “I think the arts are really important to maintain what the culture is.”

Toward this aim, the gallery normally features two concurrent exhibits: a members gallery and a community gallery that features exhibits by local artist groups. Anyone can submit a proposal for the community gallery through the gallery’s website.

“We’re very intentional about how we use community gallery space, whose voices we’re trying to uplift and amplify in that space. People who might not otherwise have access to gallery or exhibition spaces,” Kimaro said. “I don’t feel like the gallery is getting whitewashed at the same rate that the surrounding area is.”

But for the 20-year Anniversary Members’ Retrospective, the gallery’s full space is dedicated to showcasing current and former members. The retrospective features work in a variety of media, including clay, collage, felt, pastels, quilt, and wire. There is a glass rainstorm with active lightning. There is an ancient scroll, clay temples, block prints depicting changing cities. Brought together, the works convey a breadth of methods, of approaches, and of considerations. The cumulative effect is a view of what an artist cooperative with foundational and community support can produce.

“Maybe because of its artist co-op model, there’s a lot of sharing of resources and supporting each other in our learning and growing, coming to each other’s shows,” Kimaro said. “It’s just very generous and not competitive.”

“You have this group of artists and they interact and influence each other’s work to a certain extent,” Robbins said, “It’s something of a support system.”

Besides rotating member exhibits, the gallery keeps work from all members upstairs. Anyone can view an artist’s work when the gallery is open, even if that artist is not on display, and even without an appointment.

“Just knowing that anyone can go in and see my stuff is huge,” Kimaro said. “As a result of that, people have seen my work, and as a result of that I’ve gotten more shows.”

“The overall goal of SEEDArts is to help artists thrive,” Fowells said. Traditional commercial galleries often split sales 50/50 with artists. Columbia City Gallery’s co-op model means the artists receive 75 percent of every sale. The remainder goes toward the gallery’s operating costs. “By giving artists the full 75 percent of their sales, we’re hoping that they’ll keep working, keep engaged, and be able to make a living from their artwork,” Fowells said.

Kimaro said the gallery’s 20th anniversary is “a big deal.”

“There are a lot of innovative, amazing gallery spaces with brilliant people at the helm that are folding because having a gallery is not very commercially viable,” she said. “It’s hard.”   The gallery credits its success to the community’s involvement. At the gallery’s 20th anniversary bash on May 18, the community showed up.

“It was packed!” Kimaro said. “Community members showing up, local businesses. It was that generosity and support.”

The massive crowd caused the gallery to get so hot, people took chairs out onto the sidewalk.

“There are a lot of people invested in seeing this gallery, and this model of artist co-op gallery in particular, succeed,” Kimaro said. “And they show up. People show up, all the time.”

Featured photo by Katie Pyontek.

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