Arts and Entertainment

Venerable, vibrant Studio Tour turns 25

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When painter, ceramicist and illustrator Cynthia Dice moved to Bainbridge Island 16 years ago, she knew where the happening art was.

“It was my dream to be in the Studio Tour,” she said.

Dice’s wish came true. But before we get to that point, rewind the clock to the early 1980s, when the meeting of art and commerce on Bainbridge was as community-oriented, if arguably less structured, than it is today.

Keying off a successful house tour given by another local artist, Mesolini Glass Studio’s Gregg Mesmer and Diane Bonciolini gathered a group of artists for an informal house tour of their own.

“Everybody really loved the event. Even though our work was different, and our take was different, we thought it was something everybody in the community would enjoy,” Bonciolini said.

In 1983, the crew from the Mesolini tour joined forces with organizers of what was then known as Winter Fest, a move that increased both the number of artists involved and the infrastructure.

“We figured basically, the island had a population that could handle 20 or 30 artists getting together and opening our studios, and having our works for sale,” Bonciolini said. “Plus, we found that many of us were going to the city for shows, and we thought, why not stay on the island?”

Twenty-five years later, the twice-yearly Bainbridge Island Studio Tour, which happens next on Dec. 5-7, is a juried event featuring nine studios and 69 area artists making their work available directly to the public.

“It’s funny how things grow. It’s like, how did we get here from there?” Bonciolini said.

Bonciolini and Dice – now a 12-year tour participant and steering committee member – have experienced the tour through fat and lean times. A few recessions have been counter-balanced by boom years; Dice said that during the dot-com boom of the mid-to-late 1990s, her sales doubled.

On the flip side, since 9/11, Bonciolini said she, Mesmer and peers have started to see the pendulum swing back. Earlier this week, she and a number of other island artists turned out at a City Council meeting at which the council discussed proposed cuts of more than $130,000 to the Bainbridge Island Arts and Humanities Council, the umbrella organization for many of the arts organizations on the island.

One attendee, Bonciolini said, described the arts as a “canary in a coal mine,” the first industry to suffer when belt-tightening occurs in both the public and private sectors.

“Because a lot of what we do is improve your environment, or your home or your garden – it’s not edible. It doesn’t pay the rent,” Bonciolini said. “So I think we feel it sooner.”

In one scenario Bonciolini describes, a customer might walk into Mesolini and covet one of its fused glass creations.

“And maybe two years ago, they would have bought it. Now they see it and say, ‘Do you teach classes?’”

In fact, Mesolini does offer workshops so that people can learn to make their own glass pieces. And it is this type of flexibility and openness to new ways of making money that Bonciolini says has kept Mesolini and other studios afloat. It’s a “roll with the punches” approach that counters economic adversity with resourcefulness.

“Artists are creative in so many different ways,” she said. “They’re creative in their work, and they’re also creative in, ‘How can I make this work?’”

Dice added that another noteworthy by-product of a tough economy has been a raising of the artistic bar, along with products that are more carefully thought out and customer-focused.

“You really had to scale back, find your niche, find your target base of customers, cater to them, and retain your best customers (with) some product that they want to come back to year after year,” she said. “We’ve definitely seen evolution in people’s work.”

For local artists, Bonciolini said, there will always be local supporters – “and thank God for them.” That theme is what both artists came back to in describing their hopes for the success of next weekend’s milestone tour: the multi-pronged benefit of Bainbridge residents buying and selling where they live.

“I’m going to try to buy everything I can on the island,” Dice said. “I want to help my neighbors, and I want them to help me.”

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