Susan Bish remembers well the first time she set foot in Gearhart’s Trail’s End Art Association gallery.
It was the mid ‘80s. Bish had learned of the gallery and studio from association members she met at the Astoria swimming pool. In her high school and college years, Bish, now 82, was an avid painter, but over the years, she had left the medium as she became more involved in the theater, married, and raised a family. She was intrigued about the association, but as she told her friend, “I’m not much of a joiner.”
So her friend offered to pay half of Bish’s membership — $20 at the time — and Bish signed on. She was excited about the idea of getting back into painting and sharing the camaraderie of other artists. But she would soon second-guess herself.
“I remember the first time I walked into the building,” she said. “I was a little turned off. It was all these little old ladies who painted rocks. I thought, oh my god, this is pretty bad.”
She stuck around anyway, eventually becoming association president.
“It’s changed greatly over the years and it’s all for the good,” Bish said. “It’s a fantastic organization and I’m glad I joined when I did.”
This month, as the 68-year-old association prepares for its annual Holiday Fest, it also celebrates its status as the oldest art association/co-op of its kind on the north coast. Besides providing studio and gallery space for members, it offers classes and workshops open to the public.
The gallery’s home, a former schoolhouse built about 1905, is a Gearhart Designated Landmark. The schoolhouse had been shuttered for some time when a group of eight woman bought it in 1952 for $5,000. Some of the original features remain intact, including hardwood floors in the gallery from the days when the room served as the school gymnasium. Likewise, a remnant of a classroom chalkboard hangs on the studio wall.
The membership “eventually turned it into a gallery and studio combination, and they practiced their art,” Bish said. “The membership wasn’t very large, and they had only weekend shows in the summer and didn’t operate at all in the winter.”
All of that has changed, of course. The gallery is open February through December, with featured artists monthly, except for December, when it hosts the holiday show. All work is for sale, with a percentage of sales going to the association.
November’s featured artist is Kathy Samsel, a “mostly” self-taught photographer who shared her early inspiration for the medium.
“When I was young, my mother would let me look through her Brownie box camera and then she would tell stories of how she snuck her camera into Germany just before WWII started and how the SS followed her around thinking a single lady with a camera must be a spy,” Samsel says on the association’s website. “She captured life in Germany.”
While most of the artists are painters and photographers, members include sculptors, jewelry makers, and woodworkers, among others. A board of volunteer directors governs the nonprofit. Members, who come from as far away as Washington, can elect to pay the standard membership of $70 and 15 percent commission to the co-op. They must also “sit” the desk 10 times a year. Alternatively, members can opt not to “sit” the desk and pay 30 percent commission. All members have the opportunity to show their work.
“We have around 60 members,” said spokeswoman Linda Gebhart. “A handful are lifetime members. They are well into their 80s, perhaps 90s. We have new people who are really beginners who are not comfortable hanging their work yet. They need to continue to paint and then they will have that confidence, and then we have people who have painted for years and years.
“It’s a wonderful place to meet people who are like-minded,” she continued. “Not only to meet with them but to paint with them. To get ideas, feedback, and gain confidence as an artist. We’re a little secret. The building has been paid for for years and we own it outright. It’s just kind of a little jewel in Gearhart.”