Arts/humanities more than ‘extras’ on Bainbridge | Guest Column | Dec. 25

A few weekends ago, I ran into two friends on the Christmas in the Country tour. Predictably, the conversation turned to our now-grown children: what were they doing and would they be home for the holidays?

We realized with some astonishment that the three of us had managed to crank out two filmmakers, a writer and three visual artists. That turned the conversation to what it was about growing up on Bainbridge Island that prompted so many of its young people to pursue careers in the arts and humanities, which, considering the cost of living on the island these days, means they may never return here to live.

That got us talking about the recent battle over city funding of the island’s arts and humanities organizations and the onslaught of letters in the local press condemning the arts as unnecessary frills that those who want to enjoy should have to pay for.

We moved here in 1987 “for the schools,” but realized we had struck cultural gold as well. Although Bainbridge Performing Arts and Bainbridge Arts & Crafts had been around since the 1950s, the island’s cultural renaissance really took off in the 1970s.

That was partly because off-season vacation cottages provided cheap housing for young people from around the country who found Bainbridge and ended up calling it home. They created a loosely knit community of back-to-the-earth types, artists, poets, crafts people, musicians and free spirits who embodied the “do your own thing” ethos at the time.

The artists-in-residence, growth in the island’s arts organizations, a strong arts education program in our schools, an arts-engaged community, and the addition of cultural element to the city’s Comprehensive Plan combined so that Bainbridge seemed to be contributing more than its quota of the “creative class” that is reportedly in such demand in these new economic times.

But to be sure I wasn’t imagining a cultural past that never existed, I checked in with artists and arts enthusiasts who grew up on Bainbridge. Here is what Jonathan Evison, who was awarded the 2009 Washington State Book Award for his debut novel, “All About Lulu,” had to say:

“Remember the Streamliner Diner circa 1983? The place was a regular Bohemian Embassy; on any given morning an inventory of the counter might include a painter, a poet, a musician, two philosophers, and some guy who made decorative pine cones and baked artisan bread. I was a 15-year-old dishwasher at the Diner in those days, and man, did I get an education in the arts.

“That education continued at school with teachers like Mr. (Everett) Thompson (who used to regale us with tales of dumpster diving in Chicago, when he wasn’t turning us on to Walt Whitman), and Mr. (Allan) Villiers, who taught me music appreciation, and had the wisdom to encourage my love of the worst garage punk you could ever imagine, because he knew eventually that love of music would come to embrace everybody from Count Basie to Bach. Oh, and there was that Guterson guy, too.

“I’ve been a lot of places, and lived a lot of places, and I’ve never experienced a community that nurtured artists the way Bainbridge Island does. Bottom line: I doubt I’d be a novelist today had I grown up in Silicon Valley. Or, say, Mercer Island (ouch!).”

First Lady Michelle Obama said in a Sept. 25 speech in Pittsburgh: “We believe strongly that the arts aren’t somehow an ‘extra’ part of our national life, but instead... are at the heart of our national life. It is through our music, our literature, our art, drama and dance that we tell the story of our past and we express our hopes for the future... both individually and collectively, we all have a stake in the arts, every single one of us.”

National Endowment for the Arts funding increased this year to its highest level in 16 years.

Our oldest son, a journalist based in Rabat, Morocco, returns to Bainbridge once a year for the holidays. On the ride home from the ferry terminal, he is invariably aghast at the housing developments and other changes that seem to him to have sprung up overnight. I wonder what he and his fellow arts and humanities expats will say if, as rumored, the City Council decides to dump the “cultural element” from the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

If our son happens to be home again, they’ll probably be able to hear him all the way to Morocco.

Kathleen Thorne was named “2009 Island Treasure in the Humanities.”

Other Bainbridge-bred creatives include:

Korum Bischoff is a musician and graphic artist who lives with his family on Bainbridge. He is the 2001 recipient of the Amy Award for Emerging Artists on Bainbridge Island.

"I was heavily into the music and drama programs at BHS, including the Jazz Band. In my last two years at BHS I met some older B.I. musicians who really mentored me (Richard Thompson, Michael Sterns, Harry Holbert, Paul Lewis, Alan Simcoe). They got me my first paying gigs, even though I was decades younger than them. Richard and Michael even played for my college auditions. My real working musician days were with The Dead Science (which included my brother, Jherek) with whom I traveled the U.S. playing SxSW and CMJ and opened for Interpol, The Decembrists, and Blonde Redhead.

"Ten years ago I helped start the Island Music Center (formerly Island Music Teachers Guild) with several other teachers. Before that I started live music at Pegasus as a way to provide opportunities in music for all ages. Currently I have about 25 drum students, play the occasional gig, and I'm still involved in providing experiences for kids with the Zeitgeist Concert Series at IMC. I have switched my focus to visual arts and work for Teatro ZinZanni as their Design and Marketing Manager."

Bryan Gunnar Cole is one of the co-founders of the Annex Theatre in Seattle and a professional documentary and feature filmmaker. He and his family divide their time between Suquamish and New York City.

"When I think about what lured me into the arts - first in theater and then in film - my mind flashes back to what surrounded me growing up on Bainbridge Island. I remember as a young boy running from the sports field to evenings at the LGI, where I was exposed to the full spectrum of the arts; where Jazz Band and Choir concerts, high school musicals and Bainbridge Performing Arts, dance recitals and other visiting amateur companies drew in hungry audiences. Or in the old gymnasium where musical artists like Buddy Rich performed.

"It wasn't so much the productions or artists themselves as it was the difficulty of getting a ticket that I remember the most. Everything sold out, always. Getting seats to the high school spring musical "Bye Bye Birdie" seemed as difficult as getting tickets to Led Zeppelin at the Kingdome.

"Then came the excitement and anticipation of the production itself. The audience always came with a deep sense of community support and pride - especially for kids and students. The message I got was that the arts were not a sideshow or extra credit; they were something necessary to life, just like academics, a summer job and family. For me, growing up on Bainbridge Island, the arts were an everyday part of a robust, curious and appreciative community and instilled in me values of cooperation, tolerance and respect I continue to resource as a professional and hope to pass down to my children."

Blaine Fontana, formerly known as Blaine Hogg, is a fine artist and graphic designer with a degree from the OTIS College of Art and Design in Los Angeles.

"Bainbridge Island has left an indubitable molding on the successful international fine artist I am today. Without the instructors like Sissel Feroy, and the young artist award that BIAHC offers, I would perhaps be in a different career. Always nurtured from the community, family and friends, it's more important than ever that the youth and patrons of Bainbridge be aware and support the new generation of island artists."

Jordan Harrison is an award-winning playwright who most recently received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton.

"I'm often asked how I decided to become a playwright. I always answer that I don't think there was a conscious decision – I only know that it began with my early arts experiences on Bainbridge. The plays I acted in, the music I played, the operas I went to – they're still fueling the work I make 20 years later. I can't imagine what I'd be doing now, or who I'd be, without that artistic climate."

Peter Dylan O’Connor is a Seattle-based actor, who most recently appeared in the Intiman Theatre production of Abe Lincoln in Illinois.

"I am a professional actor, photographer and visual artist. I grew up on Bainbridge from 1978-88. The 10 years I lived there were certainly my most formative. In addition to Sissel Feroy, who tenaciously taught art to every student at Bainbridge High School, Bainbridge Performing Arts had tremendous influence on my inspiration for becoming an artist. As a child, because both my parents worked, my sister and I needed activities in the summer time.

"BPA offered affordable camps that included kids from all age groups. Dennis South ran the program very effectively. Being around much older kids had great impact on my behavior during classes and later informed me about acting with Greasepaint Repertory Theatre, a program run by BPA for high school students. Susie Burdick ran the program that year and many of us in the company went on to study acting, directing, scenic/costume design, law, and other performance-related careers professionally. Primarily because of her and her teaching abilities, I became inspired to attend Cornish College of the Arts to study acting. I can put it plainly, if it were not for the production of "West Side Story" with Greasepaint in 1988, directed by Susie, I would not have gone onto arts school and would still be searching for my path.

"BPA gave me a head start in a career choice that I fight for every day of my life. Theatre is a dying art form. For 20 years I have been committed to keeping it alive. And I owe my love of that fight to BPA. Now, in between acting and photography gigs, I work at Cornish College of the Arts hoping to pass on the torch."

Rain Ross is a professional dancer and the recipient of 2004 Amy Award for Emerging Artists on Bainbridge Island.

"I moved to Bainbridge Island when I started high school. I already knew I wanted a career in dance, specifically dance performance. I met many professional artists on the island who showed me that one can successfully pursue a career in the arts. The community also supported my artistic endeavors with scholarship money that helped pay for my dance studies. Ultimately, I did perform professionally. Later, I returned to the area and started a dance company, which the community of Bainbridge supported through audience, funding, and performance space. The community support that I have felt from the island has helped me to be successful as an artist."

Rob Wooldridge teaches high school English in Bolivia:

"I'm a teacher, but few things enrich my life like my connections to the arts. It's interesting because I've taught in schools around the country and around the world, but I've never found a place that supported the arts the way Bainbridge did when I was growing up. The result seems to be that students today fill up their free time with "cool" activities like drinking and video games.

"I was so blessed to receive encouragement and training from the likes of Bob McAllister, Susie Glass-Burdick, Dennis South, Ann Cofelt, and a dozen other adults whose names I've forgotten but whose faces are indelibly inscribed in my memory.

To this day, I find outlets to exercise the skills they taught me. I act in community theatre, sing in the occasional choir, and dance whenever I can find a partner. I don't know, maybe the critics are right, since if I was staying home playing video games or watching TV I'd be contributing more to the all-important economy. But then again, no one remembers Athens for its entrepreneurs. What makes a culture great is its arts."

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