"Artists' plight, artists' flightIs the island losing its creative community to gentrification?"
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:49 PM
"In a few weeks, stone carver Brian Berman will close his studio, pack the tools of his trade - the chisels and mallets, the pneumatic hammer and angle grinder - and leave Bainbridge for good.His departure will not be an isolated event, but part of a quiet, decade-long exodus of poets, visual artists, musicians and other creative types who have been forced off the island for lack of affordable housing and studio space. When I was paying $250 in rent, if my sculpture didn't sell in any given month, I could ride out the cycle, said Berman, a West Port Madison resident for the past decade. Now there isn't anything an artist can afford. People assume they're living in this arts community, but the way things are, there isn't room for emerging artists here at all. Emerging artists are those actors, dancers, writers, musicians, visual artists who are in the formative stages of a career. But even mature talents without a working spouse or independent source of income may never have much money. My business is doing very, very well, said musician and piano tuner Jeannie Grassi, who moved from Bainbridge to Suquamish recently.But a flourishing piano tuner just does not make what an attorney does. It's a really different life for us.An open forum to discuss the fate of Bainbridge's art community - Bainbridge Island Artists: Another Endangered Species? - will be held 7 p.m. May 16 in the council chambers at city hall.A panel of arts and community leaders, including city planning commission member Darlene Kordonowy, photographer Joel Sackett, park district cultural director Sue Hylen, artist Hidde Van Duym and attorney Kate Carruthers, will moderate the discussion of both the role and the needs of artists in this community. The island has changed since 1995, said Nancy Frey of the Bainbridge Island Arts and Humanities Council, when a Community Cultural Plan was adopted with a goal of supporting artists so they can continue to live on the island. Since then, the economy has changed so much that we need to re-evaluate how we can support artists, Frey said. That is why we are holding this town hall meeting on the arts. Let's not forget that artists play a critical role in making communities vibrant, prosperous and livable. Let's not lose our most precious assets. The common concern among artists, as with many others in the community, is the lack of available affordable housing. Artists unable to buy a home depend on finding rentals; if they can't, they may leave the community.Poet Hugh Hosman, who will move away this month, contrasts the $425 room he currently rents - with no bathroom or kitchen facilities - to the self-contained cabin he enjoyed a decade ago. Grassi and others note that island rentals may be less stable than they once were, because many tend to be homes on the market for sale.Musician Bruce Haedt left Bainbridge in 1998, discouraged at the lack of rental space. So did cellist Christine Gunn.Some artists - who sometimes can maintain an uneasy relationship with building codes and zoning - quietly move into spaces that are not intended for residence, attracted by ramshackle, neglected, under-used buildings that tend to disappear fast with development. I liked to draw older buildings, said Steve Kennel, a Bainbridge artist who recently left for Port Townsend. In the last few years, I've felt that if I did a drawing of a place, it was doomed, Kennel said. I'd go and draw a place, and six months later it would be gone.Said Hosman: I had a squat for two years - I won't say where, I don't want to get them in trouble. I guess you could say it was patronage of a kind, because during those two years without the pressure of rent I had time to develop. I developed both visual art and music.And like other low-paid endangered species on Bainbridge, such as teachers and police, aritsts are unlikely to have the money to buy on Bainbridge.I did some investigation, Berman said, and what I found was quite shocking. Berman's friends had sent him to look at a studio above an apartment near Battle Point. They said, 'It's perfect for you - and it's only $210,000.' That's not affordable.Even if one could find a $150,000 house for sale on Bainbridge, it would not be affordable to most making their living from the arts, Grassi said.I couldn't afford to buy a garage on Bainbridge, she said.The list of creative talents who have left because they could not afford a home on Bainbridge is long. Some moved to Indianola, Suquamish or Kingston; others, like artist and gallery-owner Jeffrey Moose, departed for Poulsbo. I couldn't find something suitable for me, my wife and our child-to-be on Bainbridge, Moose said. If I could figure out a way to move back, I would. Lack of space and privacy, plus changes in community tone drive some away.Our neighborhood became filled with ball fields and with activity, Kennel said. All those big SUVs, all that busy-ness - I just didn't want to to see it.Visual artist Michelle Soderstrom, who grew up on Bainbridge, left last year for Kingston because of crowding and cost of living. It's an incredibly different climate, Grassi said of today's Bainbridge.I also noted about 10 years ago, people began moving here who didn't see the same need to support local businesses and artisans, she said. Their orientation was to Seattle.Artist Phyllis Evans, who moved to Lemolo this year, said that both her artist children have left Bainbridge. A ceramist daughter departed when neighbors objected to her firing raku pots in a back-yard kiln, and her photographer son left when local regulations became constricting. Evans cites as an example his daily drive to Winslow to dispose of photographic chemicals. Visual artist Lisa Salisbury who moved to Suquamish, also left Bozeman, Mont., in 1991 as that town became gentrified.My rent went from $250 to $500 in one month, Salisbury said. That's how it goes - as soon as something gets organized and nice, you attract the money and the artists are out. Salisbury moved to Bainbridge and found a studio near Wilkes elementary school, but knew that, even with her work selling in 15 different galleries, she would never be able to buy. Salisbury moved to Suquamish in the mid-1990s.Many artists still contribute to Bainbridge after moving away. They commute here to run workshops, sit on panels, do volunteer work, shop. I still play and work and do everything on Bainbridge, Grassi said. I'm spending my money on Bainbridge and I'm still giving back to the community.And Berman, who has taught more than 250 local people to carve stone during his years here, will give the community a parting gift when he donates 20 artworks for an auction. However, he doesn't know what to do with the stone sculpture at the head of his driveway carved with the numbers of the house he will soon have to vacate.I have enormous heartache about leaving the community, Berman said. I really don't want to move away. "