Thirteen years ago, the arts and public safety had a serendipitous convergence of needs in Brownsville, a small Willamette Valley town divided into north and south by a truss bridge crossing the Calapooia River.
The fire department, located at City Hall, feared that if anything happened to the bridge, firefighters wouldn’t be able to reach the south part of town, said City Administrator Scott McDowell. History informed their concern – a devastating fire in 1919 destroyed homes and businesses in three blocks. So they built a second firehouse on the south side to serve as the primary station, leaving behind a fire truck, an ambulance, and a vacant space at City Hall.
The Brownsville Art Association at the time was meeting in a public school and looking for a permanent place. The timing was perfect, and the city gave the old firehouse space to the arts group. McDowell, who has lived in Brownsville for 17 years (he came from Nashville after spending time as a songwriter and performance artist) got together with art association members, including treasurer Lorraine Garcy, to work out an agreement whereby the art organization would pay a nominal fee.
The place “smelled like a gas station,” Garcy recalled. But a fundraiser – Buy a Tile for Art’s Sake – was held, and eventually enough money was raised to cover the oil stains with a new tile floor.
OREGON’S CULTURAL HUBS: An occasional series
“We’re very unusual,” Garcy said, referring to the fact that a town as small as Brownsville — population 2,200 — has an art association.
The gallery and art center sit on Main Street in the historic town center. Pioneers coming across the Oregon Trail became the first white settlers in 1846, and a farming community developed. Agriculture remains an important part of the economy, with tourism – driven in part by the town’s connection to the film Stand by Me – playing an increasing role.
The association staff is all volunteers and members must be juried in. Once accepted, they are not required to pay a fee; however, all 46 “participating members” must work in the gallery for three hours a month. In exchange, they each get a spot in the 1,800-square-foot space to showcase their work. Other membership levels are available, with the association having a total of about 100 members. They come not just from Brownsville, but from surrounding areas in Linn and Lane counties. Not everyone who joins is required to work or show in the gallery; it’s their choice.
Most community art centers or cooperatives charge a fee to belong, and members take turns showing work. In Brownsville’s gallery, everyone shows their work the whole year round. The gallery invites the community to submit art for exhibits, too. The 8 x 8 Show is on display until Nov. 18. “That’s a popular one,” said member and Gallery Manager Chris Seale. All you need to do to enter is create an artwork on an 8-by-8-inch canvas.
The gallery is a happily crowded space, with displays of handmade cards and boxes, plaques and decorations, purses, jewelry, and more. “Everything is for sale,” said Seale, noting that no one who wants to leave with something should walk out empty-handed. Items are priced as low as one dollar, said Garcy, so that “kids can buy, too.”
The space is also an art center. Open Studio Tuesdays are art get-togethers where people bring art to share or come just to socialize. On First Tuesdays from September through May, artist Rhoda Fleischman offers free instruction.
A table in the gallery is a dedicated workspace for classes. The pandemic curtailed in-person classes, said Cecilia Peters, a member working in the gallery the Saturday when I visited, but the art center is trying to get back to holding more classes.
Marge Dillon taught a collage class at the beginning of October. She told her students that everyone practices collage when they get dressed in the morning: We all put ourselves together. A retired nurse and Lane Community College educator, Dillon also owned a business in Eugene called Stamp It, Stick It, Lick It, which did well for seven years, she said, “during the boom era of rubber stamping.”
Dillon, who lives in Junction City, heard about the art association from member Wendy Hoffman when both were at a Bead and Button convention in Portland. The two became friends and Dillon joined as a member and then teacher.
Garcy, who is interim president of the group as well as treasurer, has an interest in art that goes back to undergraduate school. She was raised in upstate New York and earned a BA in art education at SUNY Oswego. She graduated in the 1970s, just as art programs were being cut from public schools, then became a generalist teacher, principal, and school superintendent in California.
After retirement, she and her husband, Tom, knew they wanted to move to Oregon or Washington. They chose Brownsville, Garcy said, because of its proximity — about a 30-minute drive — to galleries in Eugene and Corvallis.
“Brownsville is the perfect location,” she said.
The Garcys live on a farm five miles outside Brownsville and lease land to a farmer who grows mostly grass seed. Like all association members, she makes her artwork at home. She works with copper and glass enamel and has a kiln that melts the glass onto the surface of the metal. She is working on a series of jewelry patterned after leaves – mint, sage, and raspberry – that she will show next March at Gallery Calapooia in Albany, where she is also a member and treasurer.
Referring to the agreement the association brokered with McDowell, Garcy said, “The city has been good to us.”
McDowell said having the art group in residence has worked well for the city, too. The gallery and art center draw people downtown, energizing the community socially and economically.
When I visited a few days before Halloween, association member Avery Anderson was teaching kids how to make animal masks. Anderson, originally from Maine, is a 30-year resident of Junction City and a self-taught artist who works in a variety of styles, including realistic animal portraits. She is drawn to art, she said, because “I love animals.” Her showcase in the gallery is eclectic, but she always represents animals in some way.
The gallery takes 20 percent of all sales, which is low compared to galleries in bigger towns like Newport or Albany, said Seale, and helps keep the prices of work low, too. Before she retired in Oregon, Seale worked as director of corporate relations at the California Institute of Technology. Now she enjoys “putting things together.” She works with paper, leather, and wood. Her favorite thing is building miniature houses.
But she is not an artist, she said. “I am a good crafter.”
Her position as gallery manager evolved when she stepped in to organize the gallery, creating a filing system and manual for working members. She will soon be rearranging the displays to correspond with the holiday market coming to City Hall the first Saturday in December, when community members take up residence on the second floor, above the gallery, and sell items, too. Market hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 2.
“A lot of people come in from Eugene for the holiday market,” Garcy said. It coincides with the Festival of Trees, an auction held at local businesses to raise money for the local food bank.
Brownsville gets a boost, too, from the approximately 1,200 visitors a year who come to see locations in the 1986 coming-of-age film Stand by Me. About 3,000 fans of the movie come July 23 for Stand By Me Day.
McDowell said people in Brownsville are proud of their history as one of Oregon’s first pioneer settlements. McDowell found out, after moving to Brownsville and visiting the Linn County Museum, that he had an ancestor who helped found the nearby town of Crawfordsville, site of the first Linn County Pioneer Picnic in 1887. The picnic, which has since moved to Brownsville, is Oregon’s oldest annual, continuously held event, according to the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce.
In addition to presenting the county’s history, the museum, nicknamed the Brownsville Historic Pioneer Museum, exhibits the local contribution to other fictional movie towns. The area provided locations for westerns, silent films, and movies featuring the Three Stooges and Shirley Temple.
Visitors can take a self-guided walking tour any time of Stand by Me locations in Brownsville, including the exact spot where Vern found his penny, just down the street from City Hall and the association gallery. The most obvious landmark from the movie is probably the Brownsville Bridge. It isn’t the tall scary one that most people think of when they remember a bridge in the movie. It’s the bridge the four friends walk across near the end, on their way back home.