Ekberg, Willson named 2014 Island Treasures

Janie Ekberg and John Willson have been chosen as the winners of the 2014 Island Treasures awards. - Luciano Marano | Bainbridge Island Review
Janie Ekberg and John Willson have been chosen as the winners of the 2014 Island Treasures awards.
— image credit: Luciano Marano | Bainbridge Island Review

Two new Bainbridge Island artists have joined the already impressive ranks of those who have been selected as Island Treasures.

Janie Ekberg and John Willson are the 2014 recipients of the award, having been officially approved by the Bainbridge Island Arts & Humanities Council Board earlier this month, following an anonymous nomination and juried selection process.

“It’s an electrifying experience,” Willson said of his selection.

“I’m still absorbing it,” he said. “It’s a great honor, and I’m particularly proud to be sharing it with Janie Ekberg who has worked so long and been such a warm and vibrant presence in our community. I’m in very good company.”

Ekberg agreed that the announcement had been a terrifically exciting experience.

“It feels wonderful,” she said. “I was just flabbergasted.”

Originally conceived in 1999, the Island Treasure Award honors excellence in the arts and/or humanities and is presented annually to two individuals who have made outstanding contributions in those areas in the Bainbridge Island community.

Candidates for the award must live on Bainbridge, and have displayed an ongoing commitment to their chosen field.

Both awardees agreed that it was the loving support and participation of fellow community members that made possible the projects for which they had been given the award.

“This fabulous honor only was given to me because of all the support I have received from my family and this community,” Ekberg said. “That’s the whole thing about Bainbridge Island, everyone’s here to support you. There’s always someone to help you make it work.”

Ekberg began her professional life as a high school teacher and along the way extended her passion to fiber arts. She is the creator of the iconic “Janie Sweatshirt,” and the founder of the Camp Siberia project, an exchange program between Bainbridge High School students and Russian orphans which seeks to foster a sense of global community and friendship through annual summer camps.

Through her fabric arts company, Ekberg continued to create her trademark sparkly attire with geometric-based patterns, as well as hundreds of costumes for numerous Bainbridge Performing Arts productions.

“My clothing business worked because of all the people who worked for me and all the people who purchased my clothing,” she said.

“And Camp Siberia, though it was my idea and I was crazy enough to build a giant house in Siberia, happened because of a hard working board and a community that supported it through support and donations. It truly was not just me,” Ekberg said.

A small start

From humble beginnings and a friendship made through a theater contact, Camp Siberia grew into a Bainbridge Island staple with dozens of teenagers signing up to participate last year alone.

Though Ekberg herself will not go back with the group this year, she remains active in the organization and hopes to return more fully to her fabric arts projects in the near future.

“This is the first year in 14 that I will not actually travel to Russia,” she said. “My heart, soul and support will still be present on the board, probably forever. How can you ever leave something that has been such a huge part of your life? But, I was nominated for my work with helping to open the eyes of our Bainbridge kids to the world through Camp Siberia, as well as for my creative clothing, costumes and art. I want to get back to that art.”

The teaching poet

John Willson, a familiar fixture at Eagle Harbor Book Co. in downtown Winslow, is a widely published poet whose work has appeared in numerous literary journals, several self-published projects and also appears as part of the Maggie Smith “Water Quilt” project, permanently on display at the Bainbridge Island Aquatic Center.

He is the winner of the Pushcart Prize, and has bee honored by many organizations including the Academy of American Poets, the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference and the Artist Trust of Washington. Willson has been leading a poetry writing workshop on the island through the Bainbridge Island Metro Park & Recreation District since 1991, and many of his students have gone to publish poetry of their own.

As part of his work at Eagle Harbor Books, Willson authors the print and electronic newsletter, giving islanders literary recommendations from each member of the staff. Along with coworker Ann Combs, he has also created the annual limerick contest.

Welcoming community

“When we moved here it didn’t take me long to realize that Bainbridge is a warm and welcoming atmosphere for poets and artists,” Willson said. “I met the poet John Davis, and he and I started carpooling to a poetry workshop led by Nancy Rekow and Bob McAllister. I got a lot out of it. I received a tremendous amount of support from the people there. That workshop was for poetry and prose, and several people mentioned the possibility of, ‘Why don’t you start your own workshop just for poetry?’”

He did just that.

Through a contact with the park district, Willson was able to obtain a location and offer his workshop.

“I’ve been doing that for 21 years and I’ve found it to be a tremendously stimulating experience,” he said. “I regard the poetry workshop members not so much as students, but as companions in the pursuit of the craft of poetry. I’ve been very gratified to know that a lot of the people who have come through that workshop go on to establish very respectable careers of their own.”

Willson maintains that his workshops are geared toward a slow development of each student’s work and by no means does he intend the critiques to be a final decision.

He describes his teaching style as two-fold: focusing on the technical aspects of writing poetry, and also understanding the emotional impression of the words.

“I believe in living long with a poem,” he said. “I believe that one’s relationship with one’s poem is like the relationship that one has with a friend over the years. It evolves. I have poems for example that have gone 10 years or more between the time when I finished them and when they’ve gotten published. That part of the process is important to me.”

Looking to the future, Willson said that he intends to finally turn his full attention to the book he has been meaning to publish for some time.

Finding island treasures

The Island Treasure selection process was modeled after the MacArthur Genius Awards Program. Ten nominators chosen from a pool of community members each identify one or two potential candidates, whose names and accomplishments are submitted to a five-person jury made up of individuals from various aspects of the island community. The final two selectees are then approved by the Arts & Humanities Council Board. Complete anonymity of nominators and jurists is maintained throughout the process, so the winners will never know if somebody they know or work with had a hand in their ultimate selection.

Each Island Treasure receives an unrestricted cash prize of $4,000, as well a trophy/candleholder designed by local artist Kent Van Slyke.

Official awards dinner

The awards ceremony and official presentation is slated to take place at IslandWood on Saturday, March 8, followed by a reception and banquet.

Tickets will available by mid-February in a variety of price options.

The cost to attend the reception ceremony is $30, to attend the reception and the banquet is $70 and a full event “patron status” package including preferred seating and inclusion in the event program is $135.

Seating is limited. Contact the Arts & Humanities Council at 206-842-7901 to inquire about ticket availability.


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